Is the UUP really in its end-of-life phase or is there a way back for it from the political doldrums?

The UUP for many years now has been drifting well below the radar, only periodically appearing within scope, usually as the result of a self-inflicted misadventure. Last week was another such example, the Belfast Telegraph ran a story citing how the UUP was on a “life support machine, waiting to be turned off”, such criticism of the UUP is nothing new but this time it came from a party member via a leaked document. Is the UUP really in its end-of-life phase or is there a way back for it from the political doldrums?

When Doug Beattie took over the leadership of the UUP in May 2021 the objective was to move the party away from its broad church structure and to remould it into a more liberal party – “shrink to grow”. The endpoint was obvious, to provide a political home to Unionists who were shunning the DUP and opting instead to vote for the Alliance party. The “Union of People” tagline that came into circulation under Steve Aiken’s tenure was amplified and many party members were aligning themselves to the Doug Beattie brand of “liberal and progressive” Unionism, the UUP was ready to do battle with the Alliance party. The struggle never materialised, despite a promising beginning to Doug Beattie’s tenure with some polling suggesting modest gains, it all came to an abrupt end when damaging historic tweets by the party leader were uncovered. The UUP mismanaged the fallout from this and instead of bringing in a caretaker leader to afford Doug a break from the spotlight, they opted instead to persevere, however, Doug Beattie and by extension, the UUP have never collectively recovered from this. There is no perception that the public still blames Doug Beattie but the entire Beattie brand that many in the party aligned themselves to was damaged and much of the initial energy and freshness has drained from the party.

Policy-wise, the UUP is very unclear on what it is about, their stance on the Protocol seems at best halfhearted, they oppose the Protocol but cannot articulate a consistent message. Mike Nesbitt on Nolan called the Protocol a “perception’ of a threat to the Union”. Doug Beattie stated on “Sunday Politics”, “my union is not going to be destroyed by this… I don’t think there’s a threat” only to later clarify via The Newsletter that, “It’s a threat where, if it’s not dealt with in the long-term, it’s going to erode Northern Ireland’s place within the Union”. As well as contradictory statements from party members ranging from those who wholly oppose the Protocol to those who want to make it work, there is no clear set vision on how the UUP would fight it or even if they’re committed to opposing it. They are against collapsing Stormont and critics of this approach have argued that in such situations the UUP would be left implementing the Protocol with no powers to address it. The UUP in many ways is extremely unfortunate regarding the Protocol, it was an issue not of their making but they had a clear opportunity to take fire at the DUP which they didn’t do in any meaningful way. The UUP has opposed the Protocol and frequently looked uncomfortable in doing so, whereas in reality there are those in the party such as Mike Nesbitt who would see the Protocol as an opportunity with “common sense adjustments”. The UUP are terrified of riding either the collapse or implementation horse; the backlash they would receive if they supported crashing the Executive or indeed proposing support for a mitigated Protocol has left the party instead wandering around in limbo, telling anyone who will listen around “red and green lanes” and how the party was “right from the beginning”.

On liberalism, the party hasn’t progressed on this front, it is still very much seen as a centre-right party, lighter in shade to the DUP that periodically wears Alliances’ clothes. The issue here for the UUP is that they are trying to gain a piece of the market that no longer exists. Liberal Unionists are more at ease voting for the Alliance party, a party that appears much more competent across its briefings and at least knows what it stands for, the UUP has nothing to offer these Unionists in a bid to entice them to vote UUP. Furthermore, when the UUP ventures into a liberal territory, it can rarely take the whole party with it, and the UUP always ends up in a precarious position. Party opponents frequently point out that the UUP is anything but liberal. An example of this was when the UUP’s Keith Turner opposed the wording of a memorial to nine people convicted of witchcraft in Islandmagee in 1711 questioning if it was in the council’s capacity to say they were innocent, although the point was pedantic, the UUP didn’t come across positively.

The bread-and-butter issue for the UUP is the Union, but they are not seen as its natural custodians by many Unionists. There is a huge perception issue for the UUP, they’re viewed as being weak on the Union or at best wishy-washy. Critics will point to how it negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent start-stop years at Stormont, during which Sinn Fein was seen as outmanoeuvring them at every turn, this then will be mirrored against the UUP’s incoherent response to the Protocol and the Protocol is something which many Unionists view as a threat to the Union. The UUP will point out that their strategy is pragmatic, keeping the Executive functioning whilst simultaneously negotiating changes. However, it’s unclear if this strategy would have left them with anyone to deal with, and it has undermined their overall position on the Protocol. The UUP is seen as the Alliance party with flags, and there is a crop of its members that rarely if ever mention Unionism, this is a critical anomaly for a party whose central pillar is the Union. The UUP has tried to position itself as a more pragmatic and inclusive party when it comes to the constitutional question, and it has veered so much into Alliance’s space that it has been left marooned by many voters who feel the DUP or Alliance are a much more viable alternative. Much has been said of the UUP’s actions since the formation of Northern Ireland, and how this undermined the Union, but very little has ever been said about the way the UUP mistreated many working-class Unionists when it was the dominant party. These are all points the UUP should address if their mantle of “country before party” is to have any substance.

A critical issue for the party is that they’re not seen as a credible alternative to the DUP or the Alliance Party. On two occasions when the Assembly was recalled in an attempt to put pressure on the DUP, the UUP came unstuck with their shortcomings magnified. Doug Beattie made the headlines from one recall with his “whine like a girl remark” which resulted in Edwin Poots, of all people castigating Doug. At the latest recall, out of nine UUP MLAs, one was absent, and one was in the Chair, leaving seven to vote on the two Speakers – the seven could not come to a single view on what to do. Seven voted for Mike Nesbitt, but on the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone, five abstained, and two voted in favour. If it was so important to get a Speaker to deliver their former Minister’s Bill, what on earth was that all about? These issues are compounded when there is mixed messaging on the Protocol, aspiring to be more liberal and progressive when their actions counter this, being against pacts with the DUP in Belfast but expecting them west of the Bann, supporting integrated education but opposing the integrated education bill as it was “heavily flawed”, being for the industrial strikes that are happening whilst members of the party voice disapproval of the strikes, opposing UVF parades whilst members attend them, the list goes on and on and on. There are so many factions within the UUP and so many contradictions on public display that it is incredible the party still functions at all.

The UUP has long had the problem of being inactive on the ground, a hangover from their big house Unionism days when they didn’t have to try, as people would vote for them regardless. There are exceptions to this rule, but the UUP certainly has a problem on the ground both in terms of visibility and delivery – these points need addressing. The visibility issue has, in some ways been countered with a reasonably active social media campaign, particularly on Twitter and, to a lesser extent TikTok and Facebook. Whilst these are suitable mediums to deliver party messages and engage with the public, they also flag serious issues with UUP policy. Many of the UUP party members appear to be from different parties. Looking at some of the election campaigns including the current council campaign – UUP members seem to be operating as lone wolves with very little continuity between candidate and party policy. Foyle UUP Councillor Ryan McCready is one of the few bright sparks within the party, but he appears more like a social media influencer rather than a UUP candidate, and going by his profile he would seem more at home within Alliance than the UUP. Other council candidates could be mistaken for anything from the TUV to SDLP. One candidate frequently talks about progressiveness but is railing against “wokeness” when other candidates want to be more “woke”, and another candidate bemoans the demise of NI21 even though they were at a time a massive threat to the very existence of the UUP. The main problem for the UUP is that popularity on Twitter does not result in votes. Much of the support they receive on Twitter is from people who have no plans to vote for them. The UUP is almost being used as a proxy on social media to attack the DUP – check how popular the UUP are on Twitter when they make a pro-Union statement or if they condemn the Protocol. This has left the UUP very nervous and timid on social media, playing it safe for likes but ultimately morphing into a party that is driven too much by social media traffic rather than well-formed policies that could prove very unpopular on social media but effective in reality.

The UUP continually fail to balance their electoral wards, usually fielding too many candidates while at other times parachuting individuals into constituencies they are not suited to, Ian Marshall being a key example of this in West Tyrone. Their selection processes were in part why rising UUP star Carl McClean jumped ship and joined the DUP, the move only seemed to surprise the UUP and they should be careful that others don’t follow suit. The UUP handled the defection too negatively, which is at odds with a party that is all about positivity, they also took the defection too personally, which is ironic given the grandstanding they did when Ryan McCready defected to them from the DUP and even when they failed to attract Jeffrey Donaldson back to the UUP, the outworking of the latter resulted in the UUP acting like a jilted lover over a year after the event. The internal report (although some in the UUP say it was not a report and obviously is no longer internal) cited in the Belfast Telegraph indicated that the party was in shock at Carl McClean’s defection and proposed a campaign against him in Holywood which may explain the show of strength from the party there a few weeks ago. It also shows how much the UUP has fallen that one Councillor defecting stirs up such a significant response but how the UUP is reacting will only compound a bad situation and makes the party seem insular and petty not to mention how Carl McClean’s stock has catapulted as a result of this.

With all the problems the UUP has, the obvious answer is a new leader. In reality, this is not the solution, Doug Beattie remains their best and only option and indeed their final chance, but the party will need to change other aspects of its operations. The UUP has correctly identified the need to attract more liberal Unionists to the party. However, it needs to work on its messaging and policy to achieve this, and stuttering on whether it would accept a Sinn Fein First Minister won’t help it. The UUP should offer something fresh that neither the DUP nor Alliance offers, this could involve taking some difficult decisions on working the Protocol with changes to “strengthen the Union”, if it can’t work the Protocol then it has to be clear on its alternatives. Reforming the Executive should be another UUP tenet along with building unions with people and groups outside of Northern Ireland, all underpinned by a desire to strengthen the Union. The UUP will have to decide on its “liberal” project, with so many conservative members, it has to either ditch the idea and become a broad church again (Union of People) or it has to slim down the party. One of the main things the UUP should do is audit its constituency offices etc in terms of operational effectiveness and community presence and address any shortfalls, a party rotting at the grassroots will never grow. If the UUP is to be a Unionist party, it will have to be seen to be stronger on the Union tempered with pragmatism – being liberal on the Union will be seen by many as being weak on the Union. Overall, the UUP needs to be better at messaging, stronger on the Union, and more consistent, making up policies on the hoof on Twitter is a disastrous strategy.

At present, the UUP does not appear to have a strategy, they are like a small child on a rollercoaster, nobody has noticed them outside of their family members, they are holding on tightly and hoping to be alive by the end of the journey. So many party members are on solo runs, and with a lack of continuity between candidates and party policy, it appears that the UUP is something different to everyone within the party, this all creates an issue with the public who have no idea what a vote for the party will return. The worst thing I could say about the UUP is that other parties give them very little attention, and worse still some in the DUP and Alliance feel a little bit sorry for the UUP. With the council elections coming, the party will try to keep its head down and hope nobody draws any attention to it whilst praying that the results won’t be too damaging. Whether the UUP loses, gains, or stays the same remains to be seen. However, after almost 20 years trapped in the doldrums, the UUP has still not found a way out, and I am not sure it can or even wants to.


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