‘In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.’ – Miyamoto Musashi
Following the General Election of 2010, the UUP produced an internal report addressing the electoral performance of the party which had campaigned with the Conservative party in what was known, rather clumsily, as the UCU-NF initiative. Probably not enough time was given to the process.
Based on an earlier European election in which UUP Candidate Jim Nicholson, MEP had been returned with an impressive result, to some extent influenced by the impact Jim Allister had on the DUP vote, there was an expectation of success in some constituencies.
This did not materialise, with the best result in South Antrim where party leader Reg Empey polled strongly but fell frustratingly short of winning the seat. The UUP failed to take a seat at Westminster with subsequent effects on morale and finances
A redacted report was presented to and received positively by the party Executive.
A number of factors were viewed as having contributed to the election results. High on the list was the issue of mixed messaging. There were a number of reasons for this. One sitting MP did not endorse the UCUNF arrangement and with actions to address this in terms of selection taking too long, a perception of indecision and lack of clarity grew.
In some constituencies strong commitment to UCU-NF was not present and candidates adopted an independent line customised to what they believed would produce a favourable result. These factors, with others, undermined planning, policies and aspirations. It was a self-inflicted wound.
Mixed messaging does not sit well with voters who want clarity. UUP candidate Danny Kennedy suffered from a similar issue in the last European elections when his position on Brexit came across as muddled.
At the recent Party Conference, the mood changes within and the messaging of the UUP, under new leader Doug Beattie, seemed clear. Just one week later at the time of writing, this is less the case.
On the ground, perception that the new leader is bringing the party to where the people are, is ebbing away. The vision which received such emphasis from speaker after speaker is in danger of unravelling; viewed as driven by tactics rather than conviction.
In the interview with the BBC’s Mark Carruthers on the Sunday following the Conference, the UUP leader was asked on several occasions if the party would go into government with Sinn Fein if the position of First Minister was held by that party. The response was evasive, exhibited unease and unconvincing in its lack of clarity.
It has continued to be the ‘party line’ on the media, with only the situation pertaining to the NI Protocol removing it from the headlines.
Coming so soon after the party Conference with its emphasis on ‘returning to the Good Friday Agreement, inclusion, ‘Union of people’, respect, parity of esteem and moving away from binary politics, the line being taken is serving to undermine confidence in the judgment of the leader and the integrity of his politics.
The ‘Vote Mike, get Colum’ line seems to have unnerved thinking and left a legacy of ‘damage limitation’ and ‘risk aversion’ with both acting to imply ‘qualified commitment’ to the outcomes of a democratic election. Sectarian thinking and prejudice against one particular identity is being cited as a reason.
The tactic is not working with the potential to produce another Unionist ‘crocodile’ moment.
The UUP is not obliged to go into government but it would be unusual for a party, in a position to do so, not to take up the option. Within the Good Friday Agreement, the will of the electorate determines who can take the position of First Minister and which parties can take a position on the Executive.
If a Programme for Government cannot be agreed than a party may wish to go into Opposition. But, the UUP is not saying this. It is not saying anything definitive to a negatively framed but nevertheless valid question, designed to draw the UUP back into binary referencing.
Depending on results, the UUP may not be in a position to hold one of the main posts in the Executive Office but if results go its way, is it acceptable to imply that a mandate will be abandoned because of the identity of a main partner?
It is improbable that if any other party bar Sinn Fein were likely to take the role of First Minister, the UUP would be so reticent in affirming its intention in a more definite manner. This is problematic and threatens to hollow out the vision and politics which Doug Beattie sought to promote at the Conference.
It may be that there is division in the party with the new leader needing time to convince the doubters and the cautious. There is not a lot of time.
Another strong possibility is that the UUP is looking over its shoulder at the TUV and the DUP. The latter is the main Unionist opposition and it is obvious from the weekly columns of former DUP leader Peter Robinson that Doug Beattie is being targeted.
This should not be allowed to dictate strategy nor ‘doing the right thing, in the right way from the start.’
The electorate is not without understanding of how politics work and see in the stance of the UUP leader’s an apparent reluctance to provide clarity; as seeking to avoid his political opponents levelling the charge that ‘if you vote Doug, you get Michelle.’
Unionist parties of all descriptions have moved considerably in their relationship with Sinn Fein in terms of sharing television studios, serving in government and sitting in Councils where an elected member of Sinn Fein is first citizen. Such is now accepted as normal and the right thing to do.
To make an issue of the position of First Minister is to over-hype the symbolism of holding the Office and act as ‘electoral cheer-leader’ for Sinn Fein. It also discredits the values which the UUP seemed to endorse at the Ramada.
Voters wish to see stability and collaboration. A unionist party refusing to serve with a Sinn Fein First Minister, other than on matters to do with policies and an agreed Programme for Government, will provide neither. It smacks of entitlement and selective democracy.
Doug Beattie does not present as possessing these to any large extent so reviewing tactics which suggest otherwise and skew the message, seems an imperative.
A large and growing proportion of the electorate have moved away from binary identities and prefer not to see this reflected within government better guided by delivery of outcomes, persuasive argument and effective collaboration. Within the pro-Union constituency, this is the only type of transformational unionist leadership that will be endorsed.
It should not be de-railed by ‘strategic ambiguity ’ shaped by over concern with those who wish to leverage old fears and remain aligned to the past.
Terry Wright is a former member of the UUP who, in addition to inter- and intra-community activities works independently to promote Civic Unionism.