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.”
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.
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.