The flame of change dies within the UUP

Change can come in many ways. In politics, there are three major opportunities – external events, internal reflection, or generational shift. Within the space of a year the UUP has now fallen at all three hurdles.

UCUNF was caused by an external event – a change in the approach of the Conservative Party towards politics in Northern Ireland. No longer standing aloof, the Tories would stand wholeheartedly in every seat in the UK. But after decades of neglect, the NI Conservatives were judged to be incapable of winning seats by themselves, and so an approach was made to the UUP. The resources of the Conservative Party would be made available to the ailing UUP in exchange for their support in Westminster. Many NI Conservatives leaped on this development as a means of taming the Unionist beast, but these hopes were naive – the UUP took the money and ran roughshod over the concerns of the local Conservatives. The national Conservative Party recognised that the UUP candidates were the most likely to get elected, and sold out their own members instead. The Ulster Unionists emerged bruised from the subsequent electoral humiliation, but stubbornly unchanged.

The UUP leadership campaign was an opportunity for reflection, internal debate and soul-searching. While neither candidate set the world on fire, the solid victory for Tom Elliott was a missed opportunity. The spectacle of a hall full of old, grey men voting for a man who looks, and behaves, older and greyer than his years was telling.  Voting for a safe pair of hands when the wind is at your back is admirable restraint. Voting for a continuity candidate when the ship is sinking fast is wilful negligence. While Trevor Ringland’s subsequent ultimatum to his new leader was misjudged, there is no doubting the genuine frustration of many in the Liberal/Civic wing of the party.

Finally, the selection process for next year’s Assembly elections is ensuring that new faces are firmly shut out of Stormont. Harry Hamilton and Paula Bradshaw, two of the party’s finest young hopefuls, have been effectively vetoed by their local associations. Generational change in the UUP is as distant now as it has ever been.

The DUP has been steadily encroaching onto UUP territory since devolution, and the UUP has been unable to move onto more promising ground. Like the proverbial frog in a saucepan, the Ulster Unionists don’t seem to feel the water coming to a boil around them, even after the loss of all their Westminster seats. Perhaps only a disastrous Assembly election would be enough to make them jump – but a more likely result would be a mediocre one in line with their ever-lowered expectations. Ian Parsley is still holding out hope that the UUP could yet transform themselves into a non-sectarian People’s Party like the one I (and others) have advocated – an attitude which I find curious in the extreme, given his own membership of the local Conservatives, which on paper would be a much better foundation. I suspect his rosy perception of the UUP has been coloured by viewing it through the lens of an atypical representative. While this is personally understandable, it makes for poor political judgement.

The former big beast of NI politics is surely dead. It’s just taking a very long time to fall over.


6 thoughts on “The flame of change dies within the UUP”

  1. A good and well written blog, very interesting.

    This is one of the more interesting topics in Northern Ireland politics at the moment. I probably think this way because of the history of the UUP and the decades they governed here.

    I see their demise as a welcome end of an era of misrule and incompetence that has greatly threatened and undermined, not strengthened, the union. Ironic, given that the union is their main selling point.

    How can people get it so wrong?

    Unable to attract a new generation in 2010 and new modern ways of thinking, the UUP appear doomed.

  2. Ian Parsley has accepted in a written comment that the case has been made for a new, neutral on the union, independent centre right party. He is more or less where we want him to be on the argument. I’m assuming, of course, that “neutral on the union” and “non-communal” mean the same thing.

    These are his words.

    “I certainly agree that the intellectual case for a new centre-right, non-communal political movement can be made and has been made. In my view, it is unanswerable. My only query would be whether it is deliverable as a political party capable of competing electorally. I rule nothing out.”

    I will in the next couple of weeks visiting the North Down supper club to collect the feedback from the Conservative Party conference. The initial mutterings are that the Conservatives will be able to field MLA candidates but in England, NI is very much the sideshow of sideshow of sideshows.

  3. Sorry in the last comment, the last sentence is part of IP’s quote. My remarks from “I will …to …sideshows” should have been at the end of the comment.

    1. I’ve edited your first comment. Hope it now matches your intent.

      I wouldn’t assume that “non-communal” means the same thing as “neutral on the union”, but the distance between them is small. I’m a little worried by the “political movement” that isn’t necessarily a political party – sounds like another UCUNF to me.

  4. I do not think I was holding out any hope that the UUP *could* transform itself, rather that it *should*. There are a lot of things the UUP *should* have done in recent years, but it has done very few of them.

    Rather, I would say that there are numerous “Ulster Unionists” out there who now find themselves without a party – the UUP has no ideas, is drifting to the sectarian right, and is offloading the only people it has with genuinely non-sectarian credentials (deliberately, in my view).

    I have begun using the term “anti-communal”/”non-communal”, in the sense that there are people who may have a position on the Union and may even identify specifically with one “community” or other, but nevertheless recognise that devolution requires politics to be a battle of ideas, not communal identities. Strictly, this is the same as “anti-sectarian”, but this too often implies a “holier than thou” attitude (the term “sectarian” carries too much cultural baggage).

    I just wonder if such a “movement” being pro-Union, anti-communal and centre-right all at once would limit its number too significantly at this early stage.

    1. Ian, thanks for the reply.

      I take your point about terminology. I also agree with you about the limited appeal of a pro-Union, non-communal, centre-right party – this is why the Union must be taken out of the definition. An objective reading of the powers and responsibilities of the Assembly will show that the power to end the Union has been specifically denied to MLAs. This was one of the fundamental principles of the Agreements. What is the point then of being explicitly pro- or anti-Union in the new political climate? Its only significance is as a proxy for communalism. Anything we can do to break this perceived linkage can only be a healthy development.

      A coalition of centre-right unionists and centre-right nationalists (ideally with a similar arrangement on the centre-left) would be the best vehicle to advance practical solutions to the problems of NI. The Agreements mandate a unionist-nationalist coalition in any case – the only question is should the Union be the issue that causes left- and right-wingers to bury their differences (only to be forced into coalition with their enemies regardless), or should left-right politics be the issue that unionists and nationalists unite over, giving the people a real choice at the ballot box? I do not deny it would be a hard sell, but the prize is worth it.

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