Has the UUP Past the Point of Rescue?

With the DUP being in a highly distressed state, this should be an opportune time for the UUP to step up and assume the leadership of Unionism. However, the UUP at present is not fit for purpose and few are considering them as a viable option at the forthcoming election. Rather than being contenders to the throne, the UUP is in reality simply fighting for its political survival. Some UUP members have contacted me to query why I never discuss their party? After my last article focusing on difficulties facing the DUP, a UUP member openly tweeted the following, so for this article, I will focus solely on the UUP.

On April 9th I penned an article for Slugger (Unionism in a Tailspin) in which I suggested that it was time for both Arlene Foster and Steve Aiken to consider their positions. Arlene Foster has since tendered her resignation and ironically when penning this article on the UUP, Steve Aiken has announced his resignation. Steve Aiken’s position had become untenable from the get-go, announcing policy decisions during an interview with Sam McBride without consulting his party illustrated those old UUP problems die hard. Reversing the decision based on threats then made Aiken appear weak to the electorate, although his decision to protect his staff in North Belfast was entirely justified. During Steve Aiken’s tenure, it has become extremely difficult to know what the party stands for? Critics call the UUP “DUP Lite” a point many felt was well illustrated when Steve Aiken participated in that now-infamous interview with Stephen Nolan during which he called for the Chief Constable to resign. It was clear that Aiken was simply following the TUV and DUP and was not abreast of the facts, it will be bitterly ironic that this interview has ultimately hastened his own departure. Ultimately during Steve Aiken’s reign, the UUP has gone backwards, Alliance is being seen as the credible alternative to the DUP, and the UUP rather than being seen as the alternative is simply being forgotten about.

There are a number of issues within the UUP that warrant addressing and I will highlight some of the key areas in this article:

On the Ground Operational Problems

One of the most overlooked problems within the UUP is how poor they are on the ground. In the past when the UUP was the dominant party of Northern Ireland, they could get away with being weak on the ground as they knew voters would flock to them for fear of Sinn Fein getting elected. However, since the DUP assumed the leadership reigns of political Unionism, the UUP has remained poor to non-existent on the ground in some parts. This is something I have experienced first-hand and this is one of the biggest gripes that people have regarding the UUP. My first real experience of this was the extremely unglamorous issue of a blocked drain, this was logged with the UUP, however, for them to act, they required me to call into Regal Pass (UUP Headquarters) to officially register the issue. Whilst inconvenient, I did and heard nothing back for months, I chased this several times to no avail and with only limited communication in response. I discussed the issue with a UUP party member who was eventually able to help and rather interestingly pointed me in the direction of a DUP Councillor (this is apparently a well-known secret). The DUP Councillor had the issue wrapped up within two weeks with regular communications during the interim period and there was no requirement for me to call into their office. I notified the UUP that the issue had been resolved, only for them to respond two months later to advise that the issue was still being looked into, several other such updates followed. Unfortunately, this is not a one-off issue, I have encountered issues with the UUP across multiple constituencies, generally, flagging issues result in no response or little to no action. This is where the DUP and UUP differ and differ quite dramatically, whilst the UUP is slow, cumbersome, and ineffectual, the DUP is fast, efficient, and proactive. I have flagged these issues with UUP party members; however, the issues do not appear to be entirely unknown and one response I got was that the party suffered from “operational issues that are being addressed”. It would be unfair to label every member of the UUP as ineffectual and I have heard good reports about many elected representatives across Northern Ireland. However, if the party cannot sort out underlying operational problems at the grassroots that prevent them from servicing their constituents, then the UUP can never expect to be taken seriously nor should they expect to be voted for.

Underlying Problems and Incompetence

The UUP was pigeonholed as the party of incompetence by the DUP during the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ years, now they’re further away from the limelight the electorate still has questions over the party’s general competence. Announcing policies to reporters without consulting members is always hugely problematic, Steve Aiken’s “no pacts” and Mike Nesbitt’s pact with the SDLP which was not reciprocated and resulted in members of the UUP renouncing it both backfired. There was Aiken’s car-crash interview on Nolan, the botched MLA selection debacle in Fermanagh South Tyrone which resulted in two prominent members leaving the party and highlighted a dubious internal election process. There was the botched Westminster election in Fermanagh South Tyrone in 2019 that I will discuss more later. They have mismanaged internal disciplinary matters including on one occasion when a Local Government Commissioner was forced to take action against a UUP Councillor.

There have been countless examples of the UUP mismanaging votes in key constituencies which have resulted in the UUP being wiped out of certain areas, an ill-judged attack on the Alliance party during the 2019 Council elections, and then again in the Westminster election, both backfired and caused further in-party fighting and a loss of seats.

Chris Smyth was given the high-profile role of Chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh district council, presumably to boost his profile and help the UUP take back their MLA seat in West Tyrone. Unexpectedly and without warning, Chris Smyth resigned from his role as Chairman, this won’t bode well for the UUP and their campaign in West Tyrone at the next election and signifies another problem within the UUP camp.

The UUP also has a perception problem, since their handling of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ they are portrayed as being weak defenders of the Union and ultimately incapable of standing up to Sinn Fein. Despite multiple problems with the DUP and the Withdrawal Agreement, the public still feels the DUP is much stronger on the Union than the UUP.

The biggest mishandling from the UUP is how they have failed to hold the DUP to account for any of their mistakes since assuming power. From the RHI debacle to the Withdrawal Agreement and everything in-between, the UUP has failed to provide anything resembling opposition nor a credible alternative.

Mixed Messaging and Poor Messaging

One key factor on why the electorate moved from the UUP to the DUP was because the UUP seemed divided on most issues. The Unionist electorate likes nothing more than some form of unity, therefore a party divided was unforgivable. This problem persists in 2021, the UUP has been unable to capitalise on the fallout from Brexit due to a substantial number of their members supporting Brexit including high-profile members such as Tom Elliott and Robin Swann. In Fermanagh South Tyrone (the UUP’s biggest branch), I am unaware of any elected UUP representative who voted against Brexit and certainly amongst constituency members there was and remains significant support for Brexit. Whilst the UUP message post-Brexit of respecting the UK wide vote made sense, they also had no clear policy on how to ensure Northern Ireland was protected from any trade barriers, this left them being accused of missing an opportunity to pin the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ on the DUP and in failing to put some clear blue water between the parties.

On social issues, the UUP west of the Bann can appear to be a different party to the UUP projected by Doug Beattie and co. Concerning social issues, the UUP seems to be much more conservative at grassroots than particular optics appear. Certainly, in terms of abortion services, the party is primarily against, and on LGBTQ the party appears more split than in favour. It’s still not unusual for elected representatives of the UUP to refer to homosexuality as being a “lifestyle choice” and this is an issue that was raised at the last Westminster elections in Fermanagh South Tyrone. Interestingly as I type this, the TUV in Fermanagh attempted to troll the UUP with the following tweet, something which will backfire on the TUV.

One of the more bizarre issues to arise from within the UUP is the mistake amongst some members that Doug Beattie is the deputy leader. I have been told by several members that Doug is the deputy leader and a member even underlined this point on social media. Doug clarified the matter on social media by outlining that the deputy role is now defunct, however, since this, other media outlets including the BBC have introduced Doug as the deputy leader of the UUP. It may seem a small issue, however, if members of the UUP are unsure of this point and have been incorrectly communicating it, it raises bigger concerns about the wider messaging. Also, the UUP should consider appointing a deputy leader, this is an important part of the leadership team and helps to ensure that the leader does not become isolated.

The issue with pacts will continue to be prevalent, during the ‘gay conversion therapy’ debate, Mike Nesbitt advised that this issue presented a clear difference between the DUP and UUP and was a reason why there could not be Unionist unity. I suspect this message will be quickly forgotten at the next Westminster election in Fermanagh South Tyrone and possibly before.

The main overall problem with the UUP and their communications is how bad it is. The public has been left confused as to what the UUP stands for and indeed how their policies differ from that of other parties? Doug Beattie sent me the UUP manifesto ahead of writing this article to ensure I don’t label the party “DUP Lite”. The UUP has some very good policies in terms of encouraging entrepreneurial activity, making Northern Ireland less grant dependent and supporting law and order etc, etc, however, the public does not hear enough about this from the UUP, outside of election cycles, the UUP must improve.

Big House Unionism

Growing up and to this day, I have heard horror stories from Unionists about the UUP and ‘Big House Unionism’. How it was depicted was a ruling elite within the UUP that would actively mistreat or ignore its working-class Unionist supporters who would subsequently only be called upon at election times. The problems with the UUP post-Good Friday Agreement presented a good opportunity for working-class Unionists to jump ship to the DUP and there they have remained (mostly). The ‘Big House Unionist’ image within the UUP has mostly been shredded, although certain members will quietly reveal that there is a small whiff of it from time to time within the party. The UUP if it is to be successful will need to reconnect with the working classes of Unionism – ‘Big House Unionism’ may have been banished but the image lingers.

Not Listening

This is not something unique to the UUP, however, it’s a huge problem within political Unionism. It’s frustrating for Unionists that despite voicing concerns about political Unionism, despite a gradual decline in the Unionist vote – mostly in protest, political Unionism failed to heed any of this until a Lucid Poll was released in February of this year outlining that both the DUP and UUP were in grave danger. Political Unionism is disconnected from the Unionist electorate, however, as the two main parties change their leadership teams and possibly their directions, it would be prudent for them to listen to Unionist voters outside of their respective parties before making any decisions.

Fermanagh South Tyrone Westminster Election 2019

I can imagine that some people are rolling their eyes at the heading, however, it’s fresh in the memory and the campaign was so dreadful that it encompassed everything that is wrong with the UUP and why at present they are not a viable party. The only way the UUP can be competitive in this constituency is via an arrangement with the other Unionist parties, something that was initially scuttled by Steve Aiken when he announced there would be no pacts. However, when the decision was reversed the UUP campaign was barely visible, Tom Elliott the candidate looked disinterested which alarmed many voters and the overall operation appeared lazy and lethargic. There were internal problems with the UUP campaign manager being dismissed due to problematic posts on social media being uncovered and Tom ran into problems with his “soft Brexit” stance in an area that voted against Brexit and standing for a party that was in theory against Brexit. In terms of the gay community, the UUP in Fermanagh would appear to be at best out of step with this demographic and certainly lost votes here both in terms of gay Unionists not supporting the UUP but also their friends and families. It’s evident that political Unionism still has a problem in this area, Mark Robinson was one such Unionist who in recent times has spoken out about this, a natural UUP voter – he has since switched to the Alliance party.

Unionist infighting was typically problematic, the UUP’s complex relationship with the DUP was bubbling under the surface which at best resulted in little cooperation from them and there are anecdotal testimonies of DUP supporters staying at home on voting day. An underlying problem with the campaign was there was no vision or policies with the exception that the UUP would take their Westminster seat. In the end, the UUP lost over 2400 votes from 2017 but the seat was lost by only 57 votes. A better campaign would have secured the seat, frustratingly some in the UUP were happy with the campaign, highlighting how the Sinn Fein vote had dropped even more than the UUP vote. Doubly frustrating is the fact that no post-election washup has occurred and there are no signs that the UUP has done anything to correct issues from this election campaign in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, this is also true of the UUP across Northern Ireland.

Where to next for the UUP?

The leadership debate will be easily resolved, if Doug Beattie decides to stand, he will get elected and early signs on social media indicate that he will indeed stand. There is much excitement across Unionism at the prospect of a Doug Beattie leadership, he is the most natural leader within Unionism, a good communicator and very approachable. The following tweet on social media encompassed some of the euphoria of a Doug Beattie led UUP:

However, I think there is a need for those of us in the Unionist camp to be realistic about what to expect from a Doug Beattie or Robbie Butler leadership, neither will be a silver bullet, and the problems within political Unionism transcend one person. It’s also important for the UUP to be reminded that votes will need to be earned and not expected. The new leader will have to decide where to position the party, it is counterproductive going after the clothes of either the Alliance Party or the DUP, the Unionist electorate will be looking for something different and fresh from the UUP, a party that really promotes the Union but also makes Northern Ireland work. Expecting huge policy changes under the new leadership is unrealistic, both Doug Beattie and Robbie Butler were hugely supportive of current party policies, what we might see are subtle changes and better presentation along with the introduction of new faces.

There are difficult decisions ahead with the Protocol (will the UUP accept it?), the Irish Language Act (the UUP oppose it), and the health service including abortion services. Robin Swan has done a good job at managing the health department during the pandemic, however, the service needs rebuilt – is this something the UUP are capable or even want to oversee? There is also the problem of the party membership – like political Unionism overall it’s elderly and declining. I come from the younger demographic of Unionism and it constantly feels like people in Alliance look and sometimes sounds more like me than political Unionism, there should be more balance between youth and experience within political Unionism. There is also a huge need for the UUP to get more females involved. There is a general mistake amongst the public in assuming that the UUP has no female MLAs, they actually have one from Fermanagh and South Tyrone, however, their profile is so lowkey few people are aware of their existence. The UUP will need to become better at promoting talent, whether that be existing talent or new talent. The UUP is nowhere near ready to take over from the DUP, a change of leader can afford them a chance to grow and improve. With a solid team in place, new talent promoted, an internal audit on operational problems, correctional action taken, reconnecting with the electorate, and presenting a clear vision then the UUP can be a significant force again, if it fails to do this then it will become extinct. Some people feel the UUP has long since passed the point of rescue, however, if they haven’t, then they are definitely in the last chance saloon.

I have had quite a few UUP members encourage me to back the party, advising that they’re ready to govern, however, in the words of a sceptical TV character – I do not believe it. Or perhaps I should finish with the more optimistic words of a fellow Fermanagh man…..

Be Quiet Bbc One GIF by BBC