Choyaa: The UUP – Is the Former Empire Striking Back?

The Centenary of Northern Ireland has presented political Unionism with some of its most significant challenges, from dealing with a declining base, the Northern Ireland Protocol, an unenthused electorate, and greater political isolation than ever before, adding to this are the huge internal problems within both the DUP and UUP. This has all made the centenary year memorable if for all the wrong reasons. The UUP, in recent months, have been going through a transformation and following their party conference at the weekend, their tails are up; however, is the party a force again, or is it simply the case of being all fur coat with no undergarments?

The fact that the UUP is being discussed marks an improvement on where they were before Doug Beattie became the leader, at which time the party was an irrelevance. Despite a difficult 20 years, the UUP has retained a resilient voter base and membership that has steadfastly stood by the party during years of DUP dominance. However, there has been a hunger for an alternative Unionist party to the DUP and with some Unionists feeling uncomfortable with the Alliance party the UUP has had an open net for quite some time, it’s only recently that they have realised this.

The UUP party conference was an interesting mixed bag; there was undoubtedly much positivity at the event along with a hunger for an election; there was also the realisation the party is still light on credible candidates, espouses many contradictions, and is too weak on policy.

The Protocol remains an issue within Unionism; the UUP oppose the Protocol, but their opposition appears to be halfhearted at times, and it feels like they have embarked on a phoney war against it. Whilst the UUP has set out some practical and, dare I say it, realistic ideas on how to address it, it’s far from certain if their requests will come to fruition, and it’s also evident that their stance falls far short of what many Unionists expect. I suspect that post-election, the UUP will quietly accept some form of the Protocol, perhaps with modest mitigations, and blame the rest on the DUP. Blaming the DUP will have some currency; however, what would the UUP have done differently? One of the main criticisms the DUP has received is it became too cosy with the Tories. This is ironic from a party that until recently had official links with the Tories and almost always voted alongside them down through the years. Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat received a rapturous reception at the UUP party conference on Saturday, but omitted from proceedings was the fact he voted for and supports the Protocol. Could the UUP have handled the Tories any differently from the DUP? The jury is very much out on that.

The UUP in many ways has been a natural ally to the Tories and there are many conservative people within the UUP, but how does this match with the more liberal and economically socialist members of the UUP? For example, Julie-Anne Corr Johnston is an extremely capable activist, however, her socially-minded policies are lightyears away from many within the UUP, the Fermanagh branch in particular is much more fiscally and socially conservative. A party serious about leading cannot swing both ways on these issues and hope to provide meaningful governance, the UUP will have to decide where it stands.

The contradictions continue when it comes to the LGBTQ community, the UUP in recent times has embraced this community with gusto, perhaps to compensate for years of neglect? The party even included a same-sex couple within their Party Political Broadcast (PPB), but recently in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, the UUP voted against the flying of the rainbow flag on council buildings in support of Pride. Onlookers found the move surprising but anyone paying attention would not have been, the UUP membership remains conservative with many believing homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. Nevertheless, such contradictory moves from the UUP leave the electorate confused and present an open goal for its opponents.

As well as presenting a same-sex couple within their PPB, the UUP included a Camogie player and at their conference, there was some Irish dancing. This ruffled a few feathers within a small subset of Unionism, however, it was generally well-received. These small acts of symbolism were less well received by many Nationalists who pointed out the UUP’s continued opposition to an Irish Language Act (ILA). Doug Beattie has concluded that an ILA would Balkanise Northern Ireland, however, this resistance will prove utterly futile when an ILA act passes. It also places the UUP on the wrong side of history on this issue, it leaves them susceptible to criticism and when an ILA does pass, Unionism will react to it as a loss when this could have been so easily avoided – I fear that Unionism has been marched up another hill on this topic.

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Whilst the UUP party conference was a little light on detail it made up for this in positivity with every buzzword conceivable being used and re-used to the point that some members came across as parroting the same message by rote. This has then fed into the cliched phrase “Union of People” which has become so overused to render it meaningless and it is now being used ironically by opponents of the UUP when the party missteps. The phrase in itself works, however, the UUP wheel it out continually and sign off every tweet with it, very much from the Sinn Fein handbook of “Ireland of Equals”, and very much set to go the same way.

One area where the UUP has been extremely lucky is with a very friendly local media that have rarely scrutinised them, some reviews of the party could almost be interpreted as propaganda pieces straight from UUP headquarters. This changed on Sunday when Mark Carruthers interviewed Doug Beattie. Beattie performed poorly during the interview, looked agitated, and was found wanting on several questions of which he gave non-answers. This will worry many UUP supporters because without a script and out of his comfort zone Beattie looked ill at ease and memories of the triumphant party speech the day before quickly vanished when a huge dose of reality came into play. On the topic of whether or not the UUP would nominate a deputy First Minister under Sinn Fein, Beattie advised he wasn’t playing for second place. Given that it would be a huge upturn for the UUP to reach such a position, this non-answer gives his opponents so much ammunition. Beattie faces two problems here (1) the question will drag on as an election nears and could grind down the UUP’s “inclusive” message, (2) if the UUP falls far short of first place, how does Beattie sell this to the electorate? The UUP have tied themselves in knots unnecessarily, if they finish second I believe they will nominate a deputy First Minister, with the most likely contender being Mike Nesbitt. As things stand, the chants of “Union of People” are echoing loudly and ironically against the UUP on this subject – amongst others.

The next issue that Carruthers teased out of Beattie was on the topic of transfers. Beattie understandably said he would not be making recommendations on who the electorate should transfer to. This will play out well with some in the UUP but others within the wider Unionist electorate will be disappointed at this message, not that they need to be told who to vote for but that Beattie’s message stifles the possibility of greater Unionist cooperation. A much more pressing issue for Beattie is within the UUP, how many of his MLA hopefuls will encourage Unionist transfers? When Mike Nesbitt was the leader he encouraged transfers to the SDLP, my own UUP MLA Rosemary Barton openly encouraged Unionists transfers and I imagine her position will be unchanged at the next election, undoubtedly the position of transfers will differ within the UUP from candidate to candidate, leading to more mixed messaging. The matter is further complicated with some in the UUP thinking that under Beattie a “free run” in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and possibly North Down could profit the UUP at the next Westminster elections, however, if the DUP is “unable to find a candidate” in these two constituencies, will that mean there are two constituencies where the UUP “cannot find a candidate”? Is that a pact or just bad luck?

Differences between Beattie and some in his party were apparent recently concerning Dennis Hutchings. Beattie said he wouldn’t have posed for photos with the ex-soldier facing charges related to the fatal shooting of a vulnerable young man in 1974. Beattie’s position makes sense, but the confusing part is that members of his party were tweeting on this subject in apparent support of Hutchings, including none other than Steve Aiken.

Beattie’s stance on Hutchings led to further criticism of him as just weeks before on ‘Ulster Day’ he shared a platform with Billy Hutchinson who has himself been convicted of a double murder. The ‘Ulster Day’ event was a joint initiative between the DUP, UUP, TUV, and PUP to denounce the Protocol via several statements and a joint video. The initiative was well-received within Unionism but externally there was a much more negative reaction, particularly in light of Beattie having announced that there would be no Unionist pacts under his tenure. Whilst this wasn’t a pact, it certainly was an unexpectedly unified statement from Unionism. The message brought Beattie into line with the more anti-Protocol protagonists who want the Protocol smashed rather than modified or replaced with a treaty which is Beattie’s preferred option. Interestingly the video was presented as a DUP video, Jeffrey Donalson took the lead with Beattie almost relegated to the role of supporting act, the optics from the DUP were quite clever, they were leading Unionism, leading the charge against the Protocol and uniting Unionism. There is a feeling that Beattie has had regrets about participating in this event, he has not mentioned it since, even on his social media pages which is highly unusual for someone who is very active on social media. There is little doubt that the video damaged Beattie somewhat, from those who felt sharing the anti-Protocol platform was a misstep to those within Unionism who were unimpressed with the perceived regret Beattie has had after the event. This mirrors a prior action from the UUP during which they followed the DUP and TUV in supporting a Loyalist bonfire in North Belfast. Beattie received criticism at the time for posing for photographs in front of the bonfire and in recent times he has admitted that it was a mistake to not visit Nationalist residents when he was there.

On the ground, the UUP still performs poorly. If it was a boxing match between them and the DUP on this issue, the fight would be stopped in the first round. I discussed this problem in my last article for Slugger on the UUP and it was a view echoed by many. On a personal note, I have always found the UUP to be a clique of individuals rather than a Union of People, they will act based on who is making the request (and how much that person owns). Over recent years this has become intertwined with both incompetence and laziness and it seems to be a hangover from the days in which they had no opposition. This isn’t true of everyone within the UUP and making such distinctions is important, however, it is replicated across enough constituencies to illustrate that it is more than just an isolated issue and there is a problem within the UUP’s engine room on this issue. The UUP can present the most positive message, wrapped up in a glitzy package, however, if it fails the electorate at the most basic level, it cannot expect to be rewarded with votes.

As well as delivering for people on the ground, the UUP needs to convince the electorate that the Union is safe in their hands. There is still the perception that this is a weak point for the UUP and this is their Achilles’ heel, they need to seriously address this. Trying to be too many things to too many people will ultimately come to nothing if their raison d’etre is their weakest point or perceived as the weakest point.

The UUP has rightly targeted the more liberal pro-Union demographic and there is a market for a credible alternative to the DUP. Disillusioned Alliance voters and the non-voting pro-Union electorate offer huge potential for the UUP and there are early signs that they are gaining some traction. The issue for the UUP is that they have been bouncing around from “DUP Lite” to Alliance with a flag, what they need to do is create their own identity, be brave, and offer an attractive alternative. The electorate needs to know what the UUP stands for on a day-to-day basis, at present, it is too inconsistent. Whilst the UUP’s brand won’t appeal to a sizeable number of Unionists, they will need to be careful in ensuring that they do not lose their base, the UUP can never out Alliance, Alliance and nor should it try to, but it can keep its base and attract a new type of voter to the party.

I know some in the UUP won’t be pleased with my thoughts on them at present, that isn’t to say that they are getting everything wrong, the party has undoubtedly improved under Beattie’s tenure and more people are paying attention to them. However, the proclamations of “the UUP is Back” will alarm many Unionists, particularly those working-class Unionists who were mistreated by the old UUP. Doug Beattie said his party will not be held to ransom by history, but the UUP should understand why the electorate relegated them to bit player, a return of the UUP having not learned the lessons of the past is troublesome. For me the UUP is a work in progress, it’s a mixed bag, there are too many confusing messages coming from the party and ingredients are missing – they may well be contenders in the next election and I predict that they will make gains but I fear they are a party far from ready.