Should the UUP just quit rather than have the slow decline?

The pathetic sight of a rain-drenched Prime Minister announcing a general election, drowned out by Labour’s 1997 election anthem “Things Can Only Get Better,” epitomised the ineptitude and incompetence of the Tory government. Closer to home, these same words—ineptitude and incompetence—have become synonymous with Unionism and it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Unionism is destined for a fate similar to that of the Tories.

Just a few short months ago, the future of Unionism seemed much brighter. The DUP announced the end of their Stormont boycott, the “Safeguarding the Union” deal appeared to make tangible gains, and the DUP and UUP were closer than ever, with party leaders engaging in a friendly debate at Queen’s University, hinting at a potential political realignment. However, two months is a lifetime in politics. Stormont has been misfiring since it returned, the deal that promoted its return has issues with it and most of all, Jeffrey Donaldson’s arrest and subsequent resignation in March sent shockwaves through the political landscape, causing a political tsunami within Unionism. This left the movement without its biggest hitter and the main architect of the “Safeguarding the Union” command paper, plunging Unionism into disarray. Disarray has been the default position of Unionism for so long—a movement engulfed by infighting, incompetence, indecision, and lacking serious direction and vision. But where does it go from here? In this article, I will explore the main alternative within Unionism, namely the UUP.

With so many issues engulfing Unionism, and many of them centred around the DUP, the moment would seem ripe for the UUP to swoop in and capture a plethora of Westminster seats. The reality, however, is starkly different. Having spent so long in the political wilderness trying to find itself, the UUP still lacks clarity on its identity and goals. The same tropes about “positive,” “strategic,” and “inclusive” Unionism are repeatedly trotted out, but these tired, meaningless slogans fail to gain traction with the public. Despite the UUP’s statements filled with buzzwords, the party’s internal discord is glaringly evident. Just this week, Councillor Paul Michael resigned in protest over several scandals, accusing the party of isolating and ignoring him when he raised concerns—hardly the inclusive image the party promotes. This resignation is just one in a series of recent departures, including the highly promising Councillor Ryan McCready stepping down in January to pursue other interests. The exodus includes high-profile members such as Ian Marshall and extends to backroom staffers and members moving to other parties ranging from the DUP to SDLP, illustrating the complex and fragmented nature of the UUP’s membership. It’s no wonder the UUP is often referred to as a party of parties, struggling to present a unified front.

A key issue plaguing the UUP is its leadership – or more precisely, the defiance against it. The unexpected return of Stormont plunged the UUP into a civil war, with Doug Beattie aiming to lead the party into opposition, only to face opposition from internal factions. Some members vied for the Education portfolio, while others sought the Health Ministry. Ultimately, Beattie was forced to return to the Executive, and the party chose Health, appointing Robin Swann as Health Minister despite his declared intention to switch constituencies for a Westminster run. This move sparked significant fallout, with accusations that the UUP was using the Health Ministry as political leverage to boost Swann’s profile ahead of the Westminster election. These self-inflicted wounds could have been avoided by choosing opposition, a role in which the SDLP now enjoys a free run—a position some in the UUP must view with envy.

Internal wranglings within the UUP are nothing new. A leadership change alone will not address the problem, and Doug Beattie remains the party’s best, and indeed only, viable option. However, the fundamental problem is that leading a party of parties is proving impossible. These ongoing internal conflicts highlight the UUP’s chronic inability to present a united front, which continues to undermine its effectiveness and relevance in Northern Ireland’s political landscape.

The UUP’s candidate selection for Westminster has further cemented the party’s reputation as both unserious and a liability. Parachuting Tim Collins into the North Down constituency has been a textbook farce. Opponents quickly seized on his residency in England and lack of any connection to North Down, with Collins only vaguely promising to “buy a property” in the constituency if successful – hardly a ringing endorsement of North Down or a sign of confidence in winning. His initial statements in support of the legacy bill, which contradicts UUP policy, further highlighted his unsuitability. A calamitous interview with the News Letter demonstrated that Collins is not only out of sync with the UUP but also disconnected from the population of Northern Ireland. The UUP could have had a clear run in North Down and the party had been seeking one but the problems plaguing their campaign made Alex Easton’s entry inevitable, making it unlikely the UUP will even be a contender. The Tim Collins candidacy epitomises an underlying issue within the UUP: a candidate who openly defies party policy and is generally absent on the ground, reflecting the long-standing accusation of the UUP as the ‘big house’ Unionist party disconnected from its base. Tim Collins candidature represents a huge gaff by the party and once again the UUP has demonstrated an ineptitude regarding candidate selection.

The big target for the UUP is South Antrim, where Robin Swann has been redeployed, not fancying his chances against Ian Paisley in North Antrim. The UUP hopes that Swann’s profile as Health Minister can push him over the line. It’s a hugely risky move; the party has burned a lot of political goodwill with this manoeuvring, especially since his second stint as Health Minister is likely to last only three months, which will rightly infuriate the general public. Swann conducted himself well as Health Minister during the pandemic and will be popular with some, but it’s unclear if this will be enough to secure a victory. Meanwhile, the DUP might find their main threat comes from John Blair of the Alliance Party, who is quietly unleashing his campaign while the UUP adopts a scorched earth policy. If the UUP finishes third here, it will cause huge problems for the party – this is truly do-or-die territory.

A key target for the UUP should have been Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Despite running an appalling campaign in 2019, they miraculously finished only 57 votes behind Sinn Fein, making this their most obvious chance for a gain. However, Tom Elliott’s reluctance to stand again after losing twice has resulted in the selection of the low-profile candidate, Diane Armstrong. Although it was unofficially announced as far back as 2021 that the party wanted a young woman to fight the next Westminster election, Armstrong, now in her 60s, stretches that demographic but does present a different perspective for a party dominated by men within the constituency. The crux of the problem is that the UUP is not treating the FST constituency with any seriousness; it’s almost forgotten and, in some ways, an inconvenience. Diane Armstrong’s low profile and invisibility on the ground are unlikely to prove beneficial, raising questions about whether she can unite Unionists in the area and draw enough support from outside the camp. There has been disquiet both outside and within the UUP that Armstrong veers away from promoting or even mentioning Unionism, appearing more like an Alliance candidate, which is doubly confusing as the UUP Fermanagh association is closer to the TUV than the official UUP position. An Alliance-lite candidate might appeal to certain sections but is likely to unsettle the core vote that Tom Elliott secured. What’s the point in voting for such a candidate ahead of the official Alliance candidate who will inevitably enter the race? It’s always very obvious when a Unionist is preparing to stand for election—they suddenly make uncomfortable visits to Orange events and parades. Diane has looked particularly ill at ease at some of these events. She will likely be relieved that the election is on July 4th; if unsuccessful, she won’t have to endure the ordeal of attending the Twelfth. The main concern for Unionism in FST is that it risks becoming uncompetitive. The UUP needs to take this threat seriously, especially since it has quietly sought and is likely to receive a free run in the constituency. Ironically, free runs are officially against party policy but that’s only a minor inconsistency when it comes to the UUP.

Suzanne Breen recently highlighted that both Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster faced a much tougher interrogation at the COVID inquiry than Robin Swann did. This raises questions about the conscious or subconscious softballing of UUP representatives across various platforms. One contributing factor is a perception problem; the UUP is often viewed more as a congenial group of individuals rather than a serious party of government. This credibility issue must be addressed head-on. The UUP must prove itself as a formidable political force capable of making tough and occasionally unpopular decisions. Ironically, when subjected to rigorous questioning, the UUP often falters—recall Steve Aiken’s infamous interview with Stephen Nolan. While Doug Beattie is a much better media performer, he too has disintegrated during interviews under mild questioning, often when countering UUP gaffs. The party must demonstrate its adeptness at handling such situations, or better yet, avoid getting into these predicaments altogether.

Paul Michael’s departure illuminated uncomfortable truths for the UUP. In his resignation letter, he highlighted dissatisfaction with internal policy and scandal, notably pointing out two key points of contention: Steve Aiken’s recent Assembly suspension for a confidentiality breach and Mike Nesbitt’s breach of lockdown rules, resulting in his resignation from the Stormont Committee yet the party is now positioning him for the Health Ministry. The UUP has also been embroiled in a storm regarding their Councillor Derek Hussey, who was thrice convicted of drink driving. These headlines are precisely what the UUP should be avoiding if they aim to present themselves as a clean, viable alternative and when such issues arise they have to actively address them and be seen to rather than reverting to doubling down. Unfortunately, for the party, such headlines barely muster a reaction, reflecting the UUP’s current irrelevance in the public conscience.

An ongoing complaint about the UUP is its general invisibility on the ground, harking back to its time as the leading party when it didn’t have to do much to garner votes. Today, this invisibility is not just historical inertia but a persistent issue. In many areas, the UUP has no representation, while in places like Fermanagh, where it remains the largest Unionist party, its presence is almost stealth-like, with candidates surfacing only at election time. This has led to continuous grievances about the lack of tangible delivery on the ground (not true of every UUP representative). The UUP frequently struggles to champion ideas that resonate and mobilise the electorate. For instance, in 2024, the Fermanagh UUP has focused much of its effort on reinstating a Halloween firework display in Enniskillen – an issue that seems minor compared to the myriad of pressing problems facing the region. This choice of focus underscores the party’s struggle to address more significant local concerns and effectively engage with the community it aims to represent.

The UUP can claim to have gotten some of the bigger questions right, with its refusal to back Brexit being a key example. It is still able to attract some talented members, and at times, it can appear much fresher in presentation than the DUP. Doug Beattie has touched on several points that could prove popular, such as tougher sentences for those convicted of serious crimes. He has also been steadfast and consistent in condemning terrorist atrocities in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately for the UUP, these positives don’t amount to much, as the overall UUP package remains deeply flawed, unconvincing, and generally irrelevant.

In conclusion, the decline of the UUP appears to be accelerating towards a point of no return, potentially leading to its extinction. A recent Lucid poll placing the UUP at a mere 11% underscores the gravity of its plight. Instead of capitalising on the DUP’s turmoil, the UUP finds itself overshadowed by the rising Alliance Party. The example of North Down starkly illustrates that the UUP’s current model is ineffective in competing against Alliance. The party’s attempt to navigate a middle ground between the DUP and Alliance is proving futile, as it is being squeezed out by both. Too many Unionists question the UUP’s commitment to the Union, while Alliance voters remain sceptical of its stance on broader issues beyond constitutional matters.

The UUP is increasingly viewed as a non-viable alternative, unable to gain traction even when the DUP is at its weakest. This failure is not just disappointing but profoundly frustrating, as the UUP has squandered significant goodwill and opportunity due to its persistent historical problems. For over two decades, the UUP has been adrift, seeking a clear purpose but finding none. It faces a profound identity crisis, characterised by a lack of direction, a misunderstanding of its base, absence on the ground, and internal contradictions and fractures.

As it continues to decline, the pressing question arises: what is the point of the UUP any longer? The party’s ongoing struggle to redefine itself and remain relevant suggests that it may be on an inexorable path towards obsolescence.

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