I read Choyaa’s article on Slugger O’Toole published on 23rd February 2023 entitled ‘Is the UUP really in its end-of-life phase or is there a way back for it from the political doldrums?’ I don’t deny there are challenges for my party the Ulster Unionist Party. These challenges however can be our greatest opportunities for a political revival. Choyaa has put a lot of effort into writing that article and as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, I believe it deserves a reply:
Ideology: The UUP within Unionism
The UUP is a centre-right, conservative unionist party. We are seen as liberal in comparison to the DUP and TUV due to UUP policy of there being a free vote on conscience issues and us generally being seen as more likely to reach political agreement than the DUP and TUV. However, in the broad political spectrum of Northern Ireland parties, the UUP is conservative when compared to the Alliance Party which would be liberal.
There is a reason the three unionist parties are ideologically conservative and that is because unionism generally is conservative. This does not mean old-fashioned or being opposed to change. Rather, it means we want to conserve the union and its institutions against whatever challenges there are to it be that the protocol or a united Ireland. In doing so, we have to adapt to change in order to conserve. How unionism does that is where the three parties disagree.
The UUP and DUP are pro-devolution though the UUP believes you can have devolution and resolve the protocol issue at the same time. The DUP believes the protocol must be dealt with first in order to have devolution. The TUV wants the protocol to be fully removed and is Stormont-sceptical due to Sinn Fein having to be involved in government.
The Way Forward
As a UUP member since 2013, I believe our problems can be traced back to when the DUP became a more conservative version of the UUP in that it accepted devolution and power-sharing with Sinn Fein. We tried different arrangements to win back support dependent on the context of the various political times but we found the structure of Northern Ireland politics itself limited us. We see this structure clearly in 2023: the three-bloc politics of Northern Ireland that are Unionism led by the DUP; Nationalism led by Sinn Fein; and Other led by the Alliance Party.
If it is the structure of Northern Ireland politics that limits the UUP and the progress of Northern Ireland politics, then we as a party need to argue for changing the structure. After all, we built the political institutions you see today and we gave up a lot for them. After all these years, their maintenance is well overdue. Let it be our purpose to reform them. After all, we are conservatives: we conserve.
To do this, if Stormont returns, we might need to be in opposition to articulate effectively for reform. However, this will be a decision for the UUP when or if that time comes as we would need to consider the political context of this decision, the composition of government, the programme for government, the budget and also to see what other parties might do. Whatever decision is made, what matters to me as a UUP member is challenging the assumption that we would just automatically be part of any government. We alone will make that decision based on our own criteria.
Within unionism itself, the UUP’s strongest selling point for me in 2023 is its fundamental commitment to devolution as the agreed apparatus to deliver government in Northern Ireland as the best way for us to secure the union. We do not want a return to direct rule. My party has been strong and clear on this consistently and repeatedly.
On the UUP’s stance on the outcome of the negotiations regarding the protocol: as of writing, none of us have seen the final text so it is impossible to give a view other than we are opposed to the protocol and we have opposed it from the start. We want to see Northern Ireland’s place within the union restored. We are unionists.
In terms of the UUP’s recovery, we must remember: the UUP has nine MLAs based on nearly 100,000 votes and we are transfer-friendly. We also have many councillors across Northern Ireland. The TUV would be very happy to be in our position. Only in 2021 following the DUP Leadership contest were there talk of the DUP splitting between the UUP and TUV for that not to be the case in 2022. In 2023, we would need to see what decision the DUP will make in response to the outcome of the protocol negotiations and the impact this will have within unionism in regards to a potential realignment. A lot could change within the next few months.
What I do know is that structurally, my own belief is that unionism can only accommodate a maximum of two main unionist parties. Which unionist parties will survive in the long term is anyone’s guess. I will finish on this point: in the 2014 council election and the 2015 general election, the UUP had an unexpected revival. We are approaching another council election and another general election. Let’s see what happens.
Michael Palmer holds a degree in Politics from Ulster University and is interested in political ideology, the politics of popular culture and wrote a dissertation on unionism/loyalism.