Fragmented Unionism and Broad Churches…

It has long been the formula within political Unionism that if a Unionist party is both united and able to accommodate a broad church of Unionist opinion then it will be the dominant Unionist party. In many ways this formula has never been attained within political Unionism, however, in recent times it’s becoming more difficult to find a party that can solve this formula, and never has this been more apparent than now. However, is the formula relevant in 2021 and if so, are any of the Unionist parties equipped to solve it?

When Edwin Poots became leader of the DUP it was hugely apparent that not only would a Poots led DUP not accommodate a broad spectrum of Unionist opinion but Edwin Poots himself could not get broad support for his leadership from within his party. Much has been made of Edwin Poots’ extremely controversial views on topics ranging from homosexuality to cesarean sections, which immediately points to an image problem for any Poots led party. Actions invariably speak louder than words and Poots has overseen some hugely damaging actions, as Health Minister, his ban on the donation of blood from gay men in Northern Ireland was deemed by a court ruling to be “infected by apparent bias”, and subsequently reversed. In more recent times, Edwin Poots’ ministerial department has been implementing elements of the Protocol whilst simultaneously opposing the Protocol which has exposed dysfunctionality and hypocrisy in how Edwin Poots operates.

Presently Edwin Poots’ image has taken a further pounding concerning how he conspired to dispose of Arlene Foster in an almost surgical removal that was humiliating for Foster and divided the DUP. Much less talked about but equally damaging for the DUP and Poots was their treatment of Nigel Dodds, someone who is a unifier within the party and held in high esteem not just within the DUP but across Unionism. Whilst revisionism is ongoing about Arlene Foster’s tenure, it’s difficult to conclude that it was anything but a catastrophic failure. Overseeing serial incompetence and scandals and at times appearing petulant and lacking the necessary leadership skills, something exasperated when following the coup Foster indicated she was leaving the DUP citing that the party she led for five years was no longer the party she joined.

Arlene Foster’s judgement has also been called into question throughout those five years and even post-resignation when she questioned the existence of the letter of opposition to her leadership, Foster’s judgment must also be questioned when she claimed ignorance that there were concerns with her leadership from within the party and that members were moving against her, this all seemed obvious to everyone else. Arlene Foster’s troubled stewardship should have paved a reasonably straightforward pathway for a successor, however, the scheming, infighting, and backstabbing to remove Foster rather than openly challenging her leadership has now led to Edwin Poots’ position being difficult at best to untenable at worst.

As recent Lucid polling has indicated, Jeffrey Donaldson was the only viable option as a leader available to the DUP (outside of Gavin Robinson who didn’t stand), whilst Donaldson has his skeletons including overseeing a failed Brexit strategy and losing control of his Westminster team on numerous occasions, he would have presented a much more polished DUP with less problematic baggage – a Donaldson and Bradley leadership team could have presented a real opportunity for the DUP. The immediate and perhaps biggest problem for Edwin Poots is what he will do differently to Arlene Foster? At present nothing is apparent except for clumsy statements and poorly choreographed photo opportunities, this all presents even more difficulties for the party. Edwin Poots does not appear to be a natural leader, his speeches are difficult, inarticulate and poorly delivered, not recognising Jeffrey Donaldson or Arlene Foster in his leadership acceptance speech was a mistake. Poots has the impossible task of attempting to heal internal divisions, keeping members within the party, and devising clear, deliverable policies that resonate with the public whilst ensuring good candidates are in place across the constituencies ahead of the 2022 Assembly elections, nothing from Poots’ history suggests that he can come close to meeting these challenges.

Ewin Poots would be wise to bring Donaldson supporters into the fold, enlist the support of people like Nigel Dodds and Peter Robinson and stamp out unauthorised briefings which are hugely damaging to the party. Letting Arelene Forster leave the party is also troubling and will undermine his leadership further. It has been highlighted before that the DUP is akin to the UUP from 2000 onwards, which is a dangerous space to occupy. Paula Bradley possibly presents a positive note for the party and is someone whom the public will need to see more of if the DUP is to deal with its image problem, as a more liberal member of the DUP. Another underlying problem for the DUP is its loose links with Loyalist paramilitaries, the DUP will need to address this as a matter of urgency.

Paula Bradley has the potential of being a positive for the DUP, someone who can help heal wounds enable the party to modernise, but the biggest task for Poots and his party is to reconnect with the public – something which Paula Bradley can better do than Edwin Poots. The DUP is very good on the ground and the party must ensure this is built upon and emphasised. Whilst Edwin Poots is a problematic leader, he is also credited with being much more intelligent and pragmatic than he is portrayed, and pairing him with Paula Bradley could be successful. As well as being the biggest party at present within Northern Ireland and although Lucid polling has shown a slump in support, the DUP is still polling as the biggest Unionist party with a solid platform to build upon, however, if the DUP is thinking of doing it from the fundamental right of the DUP then they are finished. The DUP is not united nor is it accommodating a broad spectrum of Unionist opinion and on this, they are currently unable to solve the formula.

The UUP, by contrast, is on a high following the ‘Beattie Bounce’. There is no doubt that Doug Beattie has brought energy and excitement to the UUP and he has the potential to be a game-changer. There are some pitfalls to be wary of, Doug is certainly popular on certain social media platforms, however, many voicing their support for him there have also indicated they would not vote for him or his party. Away from social media and outside the UUP there is less energy towards Doug, this is best illustrated in his polling in Upper Bann. Some think that Doug Beattie has been a poll topper there, however, in reality, he has struggled and in the 2019 General Elections, he finished fourth. Away from the gloss of a new leader, there is also little indication that anything will change. Doug Beattie has been adamant that the policies of the UUP have not necessarily been wrong, the problem has had more to do with presentation and delivery. This is true to an extent but there are still issues with UUP policy that they will inevitably have to reverse.

Their current opposition to an ‘Irish Language Act’ is increasingly unsustainable and they appear to be fighting a battle on this that has long since concluded. Like the DUP, the UUP is opposed to the Protocol, however, there is at least a perception that post-election the UUP may change course on this if it has a good election. Short of being unable to overturn it in court, the UUP may seek to have some modest modifications made to the Protocol and mitigate some of the more arduous aspects of it, this was the course Arlene Foster had set earlier in the year that has long since been abandoned by the DUP. On the Chief Constable, the party is still emitting mixed messages, from having made loud calls in the past for his resignation, these now appear to have been dialled down to a position whereby the Chief Constable has been tasked by the UUP with rebuilding confidence within the Unionist community, but it still appears to be apparent that the UUP would like his resignation.

There is also mixed messaging on social issues, the UUP Health Minister has been accused of dragging his heels on abortion services, and not everyone in the party support same-sex marriage, these aspects are difficult to reconcile with a liberal party. The ‘free vote’ on issues of conscience has held a fragmented party together, however, some are calling for this to be scrapped as a party needs to have a fixed position on matters and the free vote will undermine the parties’ liberalism all too often. The centre plank of a Doug Beattie party is that it may have to get smaller before it grows as Beattie wants to lead a more liberal vehicle. I know quite a few people in the party, several of whom are big supporters of Doug Beattie and they are privately wondering if their days in the UUP are numbered? This is due to them having a more conservative outlook. Their resignations will not come via a live stream from Gareth Gordon but will more likely be the quiet non-renewal of party membership.

Doug Beattie hasn’t said conservative members should be purged, he has simply given an honest vision for the party that he wants to lead and advised that it may not suit everyone. The issue for the UUP is that it is a party of parties that has ultimately left it very difficult to lead, Doug Beattie’s assessment of shrinking the party makes sense, however, there is no guarantee it will grow having shrunk or as one UUP member mused to me – “how much more can we shrink?”. Furthermore, at its core the UUP is made up of a large bulk of moderately conservative members, I know many of these people, they have overseen the party in its dark days, ran constituencies voluntarily, canvassed for candidates that had no hope of winning, and ultimately kept the light on for the UUP, making the UUP a cold house for them could terminally cripple the party and seems a poor return for party loyalty, therefore the UUP has a significant decision about what it wants to be. Mike Nesbitt made the following comments about the broad-church approach:

This isn’t a universally popular approach within the UUP, the party that prides itself on being a broad church encompassing a diverse range of members and styling itself as the traditional Unionist party. It’s also reminiscent of a previous statement from Mike Nesbitt in which he denounced ‘Unionist Unity’ knowing full well his party will be relying on it in places such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone if they are to have a hope of getting a Westminster seat there. This achievement was last done under Mike Nesbitt’s tenure to which he described it as the highpoint of his leadership. Discarding the broad-church approach also presents problems for the UUP trying to entice disaffected DUP party members to a liberal UUP, something the party is likely to be very reluctant to encourage – a party of parties doesn’t need another party within its ranks. Doug Beattie has poured some cold water on DUP defections stating that such members would have to adhere to core UUP principles, although what these principles are is anyone’s guess.

The UUP pursuing a more liberal approach is also counteracted by bringing Jim Rodgers back into the fold, someone who at times would not be out of place within the TUV. The UUP fragmentation on most subjects is well known, boiling the party down is likely the only way that Doug Beattie can seriously lead it, but is that a step too far? The UUP is well-positioned at the moment to capitalise on Doug Beattie’s leadership tenure if they can correct some of the mixed messaging, Unionists are looking for a more moderate party than the DUP, however, the difficult balancing act is to ensure that the UUP does not venture too far into Alliance territory, the UUP need to carve out their own niche. The UUP can count themselves fortunate at the moment due to the turmoil within the DUP and that they are getting a free ride by the press, the issue is that under the surface the old problems are still there, the party is not united and the broad church isn’t working. Soft candy floss statements are great, however, too many can lead one to feel ill, the UUP needs to present something more solid and show that it is a party in waiting and it needs to decide on a position. Frustratingly I can speak to 10 different members of the UUP and get 10 different versions on where the party is going and what it stands for, this is unsustainable if the UUP wants to survive – the glossy selling point of having Doug Beattie (whom I like) as the leader can only cover a multitude of sins for so long.

People expecting Gregory Campbell, Nigel Dodds, and Gavin Robinson to defect to the UUP and join Doug Beattie and Robbie Butler at the next ‘Pride’ parade are living in a parallel universe, however, in these strange times, I will caveat this by saying such defectors would lose all credibility. However, amid talk of defections, there is an obvious point being missed, at present, there are too many Unionist parties and there are not enough Unionist parties. The PUP is almost irrelevant and despite the Lucid polling, I am unconvinced the TUV will attain more than one seat at the next Assembly election. The DUP appears to be lurching closer to the TUV whilst the UUP wants to go in a more liberal direction – this leaves a void. The Unionist electorate is less interested in a litany of independents or in the Unionist vote being heavily split and people thinking of defecting will be weighing these options up. There is an argument that the Unionist electorate should help put the DUP to sleep as it is problematic for the Union, however, there is a huge space for a moderately conservative Unionist party to take up the centre/centre-right position which is where the DUP should be. Could I see Robin Swan or Rosemary Barton in the DUP? No. Could I see Gavin Robinson, Jeffrey Donaldson, and Gordon Lyons in the UUP? No. However, could I see all five and many more from both parties in a new Unionist party? Yes. A realignment within Unionism can only be a good thing, there is space for two Unionist parties, a liberal and a conservative party, however, as someone who has been calling for change within Unionism, it is right that I and others allow Edwin and Doug an opportunity to outline their visions. It’s certainly true that united parties win elections, and whilst broad church parties have their issues, they still benefit a party with a diversity of views. My concern at present is, with a looming election, Unionists at present if they want to vote for a Unionist party are left with the option of picking parties not fit for purpose, a party that doesn’t want an Assembly, or staying at home – political Unionism must offer better.

Photo by Martina_Bulkova is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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