A political deal ... or has unionism lost its way?
As the DUP extends an olive branch to the UUP, many believe the parties should unite. History cautions against such a move, argues David Shiels
Published 20/09/2007 | 12:27
The Ulster Unionist Party's decision to accept the DUP's invitation to discuss the future of unionism is a reminder that the UUP has lost its identity. Since Sir Reg Empey became leader of the party in 2005, he has been hampered by his inability to show a sense of purpose or direction about the future of unionism.
The first sign of his lack of political nous was his pact with the late David Ervine, leader of the PUP, which was designed to deprive Sinn Fein of one ministerial seat.
This decision was presented as a sacrifice for the greater unionist good, instead, it nearly lost the party the support of its single MP - Lady Hermon.
Earlier this year, there was a very public disagreement about the party's ministerial allocations, with the party leader publicly sparring with disaffected MLA Alan McFarland.
This all added to the sense of chaos within the party, with the result that Sir Reg's rivals began to take the initiative for themselves. Far from seeking a ministerial seat, MLA David Burnside, staunch critic of the Agreement, questioned whether the UUP should be entering government at all.
It was just a few weeks ago that others began to pick up on the idea that the UUP should seek to become an 'Official Opposition'.
It was in this context that Peter Robinson made his own contribution to the internal UUP debate, seeking no doubt to throw the party into disarray.
At the weekend, Mid-Ulster MLA Billy Armstrong made it clear that he would like to see unionism united once more.
Undoubtedly, the idea of a pan-unionist coalition is very attractive. For the UUP, it would seem a risk-free option - if it continues with its current drift, its few remaining unionist supporters may resign themselves to accept the paramountcy of the DUP, while the 'respectable' voters may be hoovered up by the more vibrant Alliance Party. Any agreement with the DUP would be more likely to take the form of an electoral pact along the lines of the old United Ulster Unionist Coalition, rather than a formal merger. (This idea is not new: a return to the idea of the UUUC was advocated by Jim Molyneaux in 2004.)
The original UUUC was formed in 1974, when break-away Unionist leader Harry West joined forces with Bill Craig, of the Vanguard Unionist Party, and Ian Paisley's DUP. But this coalition was almost doomed from the beginning, containing, as it did, some very big egos with very conflicting views about the future of unionism.
Bill Craig was the first to be forced out, when in 1976 his about-turn on the idea of power-sharing was condemned by the other unionist leaders.
The Official Unionists continued in partnership with the DUP for a short time, but even then their alliance was plagued by disagreements between the integrationist Enoch Powell (who had joined the UUP), and the populist and much more versatile Ian Paisley.
Supporters of a new pact may rightly point out that unionism is no longer facing such grave dangers and, with a considerably mellowed Paisley in charge, there is likely to be less potential for disagreement.
As there is no one within the UUP who appears to have the skills needed to unite the party, it may be that a broader unionist coalition is just what is needed to impose discipline within the ranks, while at the same time holding out wider prospects for ambitious UUP MLAs.
As the events of the last few months have shown, this is a period of great flux in Northern Ireland, and, in entering government with Sinn Fein, the DUP have rid themselves of much of their ideological baggage.
But at times of great change, considerable foresight is needed. In 1921, the British Government established a system of government in Northern Ireland that ensured the emergence of a one-party state. At a time when the British Government is once again retreating from direct involvement in Ulster, the danger is that it will become a two-party state - a diarchy carved up between the DUP and Sinn Fein, each with their own personal fiefdoms.
Some Ulster Unionists have hitherto displayed some grasp of what is needed to avoid this situation - only a few weeks ago the UUP was calling for the d'hondt system to be reviewed. If there is to be any hope of having this system changed, the UUP must continue to provide a possible alternative to a DUP and Sinn Fein led administration.
For their own part, the DUP are, for the first time, beginning to think seriously about a future without Paisley. The fact that it was Peter Robinson who invited the UUP to these latest talks is significant - no doubt his willingness to secure good relations with the Ulster Unionists is influenced by thoughts of his own succession to the leadership of the DUP.
That, however, is by no means guaranteed, and there is no need for the Ulster Unionists to come prematurely to Robinson's aid.
If the Ulster Unionists were able to display some of the pragmatism and discipline displayed by their rivals, then there would be much to play for.
David Shiels is currently a PhD student in history at Peterhouse, Cambridge