How Elliott reflects the reality for Mr Mainstream Unionist
It was no surprise that Tom Elliott swept to an easy victory in the Waterfront Hall last week.
Progressive liberal unionism may be the darling of the media, but it is not a vote-catcher and the Ulster Unionist party has awoken to that fact.
Mr Mainstream Unionist, whom I tried to define a couple of weeks ago in this column, is more of a conservative, church-going Protestant than a secular-minded liberal. He has plenty of the new UUP leader in his character.
Tom Elliott inherits a party in deep trouble, but which has already undergone substantial reform.
More progressives unionists have moved in and exerted influence — not least in breaking the formal link with the Orange Order.
However, the loyal institutions remain to unionism what the trade union movement is to the Labour Party in Britain. That Tom Elliott is a ‘never on a Sunday’ Orangeman will do his fortunes no harm at all in his quest to restore mainstream values and votes.
Politics here remains wedded in sectarian and constitutional divisions. The failure of the Conservative Party to attract support at the General Election is evidence that conventional politics has no attraction.
Nor does the presence of Sinn Fein at the heart of the Executive, with its undiluted united Ireland agenda and the support of a surprisingly large majority of the Catholic community who’d do anything to persuade unionists towards more liberal tendencies.
Unionism in 2010 is still an expression of the body politic of the Protestant community.
There is no evidence to date that Catholics have been attracted, or will be attracted, to vote in any numbers for a pro-British party other than the Alliance party. If they were, or could be, the hand of liberal unionists would be greatly strengthened.
Tom Elliott is already stereotyped in the media as such a traditionalist Orangeman. But the true judge of whether he succeeds or fails will be whether he can reawaken Mr Mainstream Unionist from his slumbers and interest him in casting a vote.
Unionism — as with Irish nationalism — is much bigger than any single political party. The party which succeeds is the one which best recognises and reflects Mr Mainstream Unionist’s views and currently that party is the Democratic Unionists.
In any assessment of where unionism is going, it is essential to analyse where it has come from in the past decade.
The Democratic Unionists are not as rightwing and blatantly sectarian as they once were. UUP defectors, such as Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson, have helped to give the DUP a new respectability with Mr Mainstream Unionist.
The party hasn’t quite lain to rest the ghost of Paisleyism but has come a long way from its fundamentalist pan-Protestant roots.
The Ulster Unionist Party’s decline began with the splits over civil rights reforms in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
Somewhat forgotten is the fact that one leader — James Molyneaux — did manage to thwart the political advance of Paisleyism and survived as leader from 1979 until 1995.
As Sovereign Master of the Royal Black Institution and an arch-conservative, he held his party together on traditional unionist values of loyalty to Queen and country. I remember asking Molyneaux one Friday afternoon in the party’s old HQ in Glengall Street how he managed to keep Paisley at bay. He replied: “I simply ‘out-Right’ him.”
By this he meant that he outflanked the hardliners by appearing just as uncompromising as they were and ensuring that he held firm to his Protestant unionist roots.
As a consequence, Paisley and the DUP found difficulty in discrediting Molyneaux’s leadership as they did so many others. Once David Trimble, Molyneaux’s successor, stopped dancing with Paisley down the Garvaghy Road and took his alternative route to the Good Friday agreement, another great chunk fell off the Ulster Unionist Party’s electoral support.
Sir Reg Empey was a leader in no-man’s land. His experiment with the Conservative Party failed, but there was an even more significant failing.
The progressive candidates in the UUP are not vote-winners, as evidenced at the recent General Election.
Never before did the Ulster Unionists field so many candidates with no Orange connections and never before did the party lose so abysmally. In finding a Molyneaux-like figure in Tom Elliott, the party may have made its most pragmatic choice for a generation.
He may not have the charisma to win plaudits from media commentators but he does appear to have the solid credentials, as Molyneaux had, to reassure the doubting, apathetic Mr Mainstream Unionists of Ulster.