UUP conference has seen the party talk well, but Doug Beattie must find a way to walk better

You cannot make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. After more than twenty years of political stasis, this old commonplace saying is now supremely applicable to Northern Irish politics (and all of it, not just on the unionist side).

Judging from the subliminal imaging and aspirational messaging evident in the UUP Political Broadcast and Conference on Saturday, Doug Beattie must have disposed of quite a few political egg shells in setting a long overdue re-boot agenda for the party he now leads.

Previous attempts have been appropriately compared to a giant container ship trying to alter course in choppy waters with many on board preferring the traditional route.

With drama, bagpipes, foot-tapping music and Irish dancers, looks like the leader is seeking to launch a passenger liner for all comers to replace an ageing tramp steamer.

For the sake of a future for the UUP he needs to succeed even if this is something of a delayed start.

The desired aspirational terrain, rather than the course to be followed, is the clearer of the two at present with dangerous obstacles still to navigate and with other political parties having grabbed some of the space; more pro-active in delivering the inclusivity, pluralism and social justice the UUP now wants to embrace.

In this moment, with limited visual evidence only of what the UUP now aspires to on display on the Conference platform, it may be exposed to a charge of pragmatic catch-up and survivalist conversion.

Cynics and opposition will not be slow to level the charge. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. Same sex or inter-racial couples and groups with diverse cultural and religious identities, or none, do not need subliminal messages at risk of being seen as patronising.

You cannot simply stage parity of esteem and claim the label progressive, it has to be lived out and seen to be so. It’s about values; the inner core of your political culture and moral ecology.

Political Unionism is not yet synonymous with aspects of civic and pro-Union thinking impassioned as it is by what is important in life; peace without victory, mutual respect and parity of esteem.

Having to re-assure diverse individuals and groups at this point that they have a home in a Northern Ireland celebrating 100 years of its existence is a situation that speaks volumes for past failings.

Deeper reflection than is currently evident commends parity with celebration and commemoration.

It is not wholly clear that political unionism has looked back to see what it has left behind; what has been holding it and the community back other than a backward glance at dispiriting election results.

Yet, the former is the foundation on which credibility needs to be built, quickly; beyond the receptive space of a Conference room and footage of Gaelic sport, same sex and mixed-race relationships, all of which political Unionism, living too long in the shadow of Home Rule, has done little to promote over 100 years. Only a few non-risk averse individuals, motivated by a strong passion for equality and fairness, shook but failed to break the mould.

It is not so long since the UUP was prepared to engage in pacts with political Unionists who referred to the GAA as ‘the sporting wing of the IRA’ or voted solidly against same-sex marriage.

Now with the electorate moving into a more liberal space, it is not wholly credible or respectful to display examples of both as political trophies you are now prepared to afford a place in your Union.

In the absence of acknowledging past misjudgements, such is condescending and careless.

By failing to do this, you are asking the electorate to place trust in a pre-packaged vision of unionism that has never existed; seeking to herd rather than lead and being too gentle on your own history.

Yet, this is a place left vacant by others intent on remaining behind a veil of limited scrutiny and accountability.

The current stance of the new leader is nevertheless a welcome endorsement of thinking previously rejected by the UUP, along with proposals for going into opposition, in the leadership election of 2012.

In that same year, the party was told that you could be a Gaelic-speaking Unionist with an interest in Irish sport beyond the occasional visit to Croke Park to watch an Irish Rugby XV play England or France.

It has been a slow journey for the UUP with zig-zags along the way.

Listening ears were tuned to the wrong notes as the DUP trumpeted a toxic brand of unsustainable Unionism; as demographics and a more discerning electorate have shown.

Now it seems that rejection, leading to electoral slippage and maybe younger thinking attuned to different voices seeking solutions to a number of environmental, social and economic issues, serve to determine purpose anew.

Unlike other changes in course, the UUP cannot afford this time to go back on the journey on which it is embarking; be prepared to walk in other’s shoes, even if hurts the feet of the faithful. Anything else would be a betrayal.

The new leader has referred to the unsustainability of the GFA structures as well as addressing issues like housing, investment, jobs, mental health and education. Few would differ. In fact, all parties offer the same to a more or lesser degree.

The choreography on the stage and the broadcast is over. Voters will want to know what the vision looks like beyond the rhetoric. What would a re-structured form of power-sharing look like?

It is not sufficient to simply promote discourse. Must we continue to live with two-tiered healthcare provision until private treatment for a growing number alongside an over-stretched NHS becomes the norm?

Other unanswered questions abound:

  • How long before ending segregation and delivering integrated schooling cease to become a perennial on party manifestoes?
  • How long before the inadequacy of Mental Health provision and the forgotten inequality of disability are addressed?
  • How long before the place where you are born ceases to pre-determine the future for too many?
  • When will the Welfare State that Unionism initially rejected, cease to be a way of life and return to serving as a safety net?

Will a UUP re-born engage fully with the GFA All-Ireland Bodies and the Shared Island initiative? If there is a seat provided at a table, will the UUP fill it in the interests of Northern Ireland?

Will the UUP finally aspire to leadership in national as well as devolved politics? One of Doug Beattie’s predecessors once said: ‘’The UUP is at its best when it has something to fight against.”

It was wrong-headed at the time and more so now; even with the challenges of the NI Protocol. A political vision is as good as when it is fulfilled and there is much for political Unionism to fight for.

A few more precious eggs may have to be broken before the political omelette is as appetising as it needs to be to shift some actual votes rather than just making people in the hall feel a little better about themselves.

Photo by Zach Taiji on Unsplash