Belfast Telegraph

Parties need better defence in Stormont's game of two halves

By Ed Curran

Surprise, surprise. Peter Robinson has been to his first gaelic match, Martin McGuinness is heading for Windsor Park and the Ulster Unionists have scored another own goal.

What a shame that attending a sports event in the 21st century should require any religious, political or cultural heart-searching; that a First Minister taking his seat in the stands should still be considered historically ground-breaking and talked about as if he had embarked on a trip to the Moon and back.

Life is changing in Northern Ireland - and for the better. Not so long ago, any unionist leader who dared to enter a GAA turnstile would have been orange-carded out of his party before he could say Mickey Harte. The big winners in Armagh nine days ago were Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and community relations.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch at Stormont, all is not well yet again with another shade of unionism. But do we really want to see the end of the Ulster Unionist party?

Do we really want Northern Ireland dominated by two monolithic power-blocks, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein?

As the battering-rams of the media attack the gates of the Ulster Unionists, we should not forget one thing: Northern Ireland would not be the place it is today if it were not for the UUP and the SDLP.

We are in danger now of talking ourselves into a two-party state - unionist and nationalist with a small, ineffective and compliant group squeezed in the middle. Surely, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP have played too significant a part in the development of the new Northern Ireland to allow that to happen?

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are transforming themselves into latter-day moderates, but is it not time that the UUP and SDLP began to fight back and re-assert their important alternative voices in our society?

At the 2011 Assembly election, 87,258 voters still gave their first preferences to the Ulster Unionists, another 94,286 did so for the SDLP.

The two parties continue to languish because they are caught in a political no-man's land, rendered impotent within the carve-up of power in the Stormont Executive.

As a consequence, they have become lackeys for the sake of having one or two ministers picking up some crumbs of responsibility.

Events over the past week suggest the Ulster Unionist leadership is facing yet another crisis of confidence. Whatever the rights and wrongs in the David McNarry row, the party, through its leader, needs a better profile.

Modern political battles are won and lost by spokespeople who can string words and arguments together over the airwaves. "No comment" can spell disaster in today's media-savvy world.

The future of Northern Ireland centres on power-sharing within the UK, coupled with strong, friendly links with the neighbouring Republic and a growing recognition of both Britishness and Irishness in our society.

Pragmatic politics are taking over. The old arguments between unionism and nationalism have not the same resonance today.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness are reflecting that mood by being seen together more and more. They are setting the pace, while the leaders of the UUP and SDLP are lagging behind.

Mainstream unionism is not as exercised as it used to be about the threat of a united Ireland. Even Martin McGuinness said last week that he did not envisage a Scottish-style referendum on Irish unity for years to come.

Realism is creeping into Northern Ireland at long last and in this more respectful atmosphere, the leadership of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP must get their act together.

They need to challenge, also, the weaknesses of Stormont and not leave it to the media to act as the Executive's unofficial Opposition. They need to recognise that 180,000 people in this community continue to support them and want to see them survive to represent their interests.

Tom Elliott has been wrong-footed by the First Minister's new-found statesmanship, no better displayed than in the stands at Armagh. How ironic that the Ulster Unionist leader is seen as less liberally disposed towards the GAA than the leader of the DUP or the Queen?

Eventually, Stormont will be mature enough to have an official Opposition. By that time, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP need to ensure they still exist.

The buck stops with the current leaders. They need to act more convincingly and cohesively than they have to date.

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