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.