Spectator sport

It’s always enjoyable watching an internal battle in a political party you aren’t a member of. The intra-UUP showdown between liberal standard-bearer Basil McCrea and his traditionalist rival Tom Elliott is starting to turn nasty.

Mr McCrea had accused Mr Elliott of inflicting a “painful insult” on PSNI Gaelic footballer Peadar Heffron, who was severely injured in a dissident car bomb attack.

In an extraordinary counter attack last night, Mr Elliott said he had been deeply hurt by his rival’s remarks.

“To make these lowdown comments that he has, I must say I have to question, for the first time, Basil McCrea as a colleague,” Mr Elliott said.

Amid appeals that the race should not become personal, the Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA said he now feared the party could be split.

“With this type of campaign I fail to understand how we can have any semblance of a united party at the end of this leadership campaign,” he added.

“If this is allowed to continue I believe it will destroy the party.”

This all stems from Elliott’s earlier statement that he has no intention of ever attending a GAA event (or Gay Pride, but that’s for another time). There is a certain strand of Unionist opinion that seems to have a horrified fascination with all things GAA, and can quote every small insult perpetrated by the organisation. The big insult, Rule 21, was repealed nearly a decade ago, so any substantial complaints usually boil down to rural clubs named after hunger strikers, and some romantic language in the GAA charter. Of course, these Unionists see what they want to see – for the vast majority of players, supporters and (in the Republic at least) the general public, the GAA is just sport. Elliott’s statement is, as one Slugger commenter put it, pure dog-whistle politics.
The battle is also interesting for what is missing. Both candidates, for example, have forsworn formal pacts with other parties. McCrea rules them out entirely, while Elliott is slightly warmer on “cooperation” with the DUP on certain (unstated) matters. And as Alex Kane points out, neither candidate has a convincing plan for how to reclaim lost votes:

McCrea wants to ‘reach out’ — but to whom? The sort of voters he’s after haven’t gone to Alliance; they didn’t go to the Conservatives (in the post-1990 period) and they didn’t go to UCUNF. So what would make them want to go to another reinvention of the UUP? He may want to make overtures to the SDLP, but how does he live with their increasingly ‘green’ agenda? How does he win over that mix of non-voting ‘Garden Centre Prods’ and pro-Union Catholics without diluting his brand of unionism even more? And how does he build his pluralist credentials if he closes the door to UCUNF? Meanwhile, Elliott will want to attract back the voters who have left the UUP. But how does he do that unless he swings it to the right of the DUP — and in the process loses the McCrea wing of the party? No one should underestimate the scale of the task facing the UUP’s next leader.

Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/why-leadership-battle-could-tear-party-apart-14926651.html

The problem here is that the DUP has over the last ten years slowly crept onto the ground that the UUP used to take for granted. The DUP now sits on the centre of gravity of political Unionism and the UUP find themselves scattered and directionless. Sinn Féin have adopted a similar tactic, leaving the SDLP at odds whether to sell themselves on their green or red credentials. There is usually only room for one big-tent, populist party in any given polity. That NI has two is testament to its otherness. The Ulster Unionists seem to want to be a third, not out of any common conviction, but due to having no other reason to continue to exist.
Nicholas Whyte has an excellent analysis of the differences between the candidates, but it is his last paragraph that stands out for me:
My problem with it is that I miss the intellectual argument that a good society – inclusive, positive and pluralist, or nice to families, businessmen, farmers, children and old people – is necessarily one located within the Union. It seems to me that you can prioritise the Union (or a United Ireland, or a confederal Belgium for that matter) as a constitutional concept, or you can promote a state which is generally nice to all of its citizens, but you have to choose one as the priority over the other, and my choice will always be for the second, with deep suspicion of anyone who tells me that the only way to achieve that is by accepting their vision on the first. And my suspicion is that more voters in Northern Ireland are beginning to feel that way; and I am not sure that any party with ‘Unionist’ in its name can ever appeal to them.

2 thoughts on “Spectator sport”

  1. Good Post. The following passage by Nicholas Whyte caught my eye

    “When I have taxed senior UUP members about this in the past, their protest has been that the ancien regime was actually a rather good government, which of course closes down the discussion immediately. The UUP needs a better narrative for what happened in the middle decades of the last century. Of course it is still struggling for a narrative for what has happened this century, so perhaps I should not expect too much.”

    A Unionist only needs to ask why Terence O’Neill attempted to bring in Civil Rights Reforms to hit upon the fact that Catholics were oppressed. Still, there is no sign that any Unionist politician is prepared to emerge from this apparent denial. Politicians can and do take responsibility for wrongs of the past committed by their own people. David Cameron did it for Bloody Sunday. Tony Blair did it for the Irish Famine.

    We are overdue for an enlightened unionist politician to get up and apologise for the wrongs of the Ulster Unionists during their 50 years Governing Northern Ireland.

  2. Yes, I’ll never forget John Taylor (the last politically-active politician of the Faulkner cabinet) appearing on some high-profile talking-heads documentary around the time of the GFA, and flatly denying that there was any problem with the ancien regime. Most unionist voters knew even then that was complete nonsense, but there’s still a reluctance to discuss it openly.

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