Belfast Telegraph

It's another fine shambles for the divided unionists

No lessons have been - or will be - learned from the fallout of the David McNarry affair, says Alex Kane

There are times when it might be simpler if the UUP block-booked the Grand Opera House and presented itself as a pantomime or farce.

Because, just when you think it can't possibly top its last banana-skin catastrophe, it somehow manages to drive the car over another cliff - a cliff it actually went on a detour to find.

Indeed, it's hard not to disagree with the caller to yesterday's Talkback on Radio Ulster, who described the party as "kamikaze headless chickens".

As with so many of its cock-ups, this one could easily have been avoided, for there was actually no need to keep the talks with the DUP secret.

Talking with the DUP makes perfect sense on some occasions, particularly when it comes to issues like finding ways to maximise seats, turnout and influence.

The numbers of people voting for pro-Union parties has fallen over the past couple of decades and it makes sense for the UUP and DUP, in particular, to examine the reasons for that decline and then explore possible options for addressing the problem.

None of this required secrecy. Ok, it didn't necessarily need to be put into the wider public domain, but there was certainly no substantial reason for keeping its MLAs out of the loop.

And it's that element of secrecy which has done so much damage to the UUP. It should have learned a lesson when the Hatfield House talks - involving the UUP, DUP and Conservatives - were revealed in January 2010, causing many UUP members and MLAs to question the 'purpose, nature and agenda of these secret talks'.

There is a simple rule of politics (and it probably applies more to the UUP than to any other party): it's almost impossible to keep anything secret. So, if it doesn't need to be secret, don't make it secret.

The other problem, of course, is that it looks as though the UUP has moved on to yet another potential partner.

It started back in May 2006 when it tried to engineer an Assembly deal with the PUP; then there were hints of below-the-radar talks with the SDLP; then the whole on-again-off-again saga with the Conservatives; and now some sort of unspecified relationship with the DUP.

All of which suggests a party which doesn't really know what it stands for anymore.

There are clearly elements who want a much closer working relationship with the DUP and elements who still believe that a UUP/Conservative deal is possible.

And there is a wing which believes that the differences between the UUP and DUP are so great that not only is unity between them impossible, but that even working closer together would yield no advantages for the UUP. Yet what I don't hear spelled out is what, exactly, the differences between the DUP and UUP are.

They sit in the same Executive committee. They seem to have reached agreement on the Justice Ministry and the axing of the Department of Education and Learning.

Danny Kennedy has been brought into the DUP circle for pre-Executive briefings. The UUP has refused to shift onto the Opposition benches and offer a political or legislative alternative to that offered by the DUP. The 'game-changer' proposals at the heart of the UUP's Assembly manifesto seem to have vanished.

Another simple rule of politics: if voters can't tell the difference between two parties they tend to vote for the one that looks most disciplined, or most likely to win.

So there's no point in the UUP's constant moaning about the DUP stealing its clothes, moving onto its ground, or wanting to gobble it up. That's what political parties do.

It's what Tony Blair did in the run-up to the 1997 General Election and what David Cameron did between 2007 and 2010. So standing still, while glancing over your shoulder at happier times, is not an option if the UUP wants to survive and recover.

But can it recover? The fact that that question has had to be asked so often in the past decade really should worry the UUP.

One thing is certain, though, in the continuing absence of a coherent purpose, role, direction and overarching strategy they will go nowhere.

It's not that they would vanish overnight: it would, instead, be a case of fewer votes and seats at each new election until, like the Cheshire Cat, it just disappeared from view.

I have listened to a number of UUP MLAs - including Basil McCrea, Mike Nesbitt and John McCallister - respond to the question, 'What's the difference between the UUP and DUP?' All three have struggled to give a clear answer.

And that's an ongoing problem for the self-styled 'liberal' wing of the party. Its members have obvious difficulties with the DUP and 'old-style' unionism, yet they don't appear to have obvious, thought-through alternatives.

And therein lies the crucial, crippling dilemma for the UUP. Who are they? What are they?

Those wanting change in the party have failed to set out their vision and agenda. Those who don't want to change are stuck with a party that has become a less-competent DUP mirror-image.

The debacle over David McNarry sums up everything that is wrong with the UUP and the fallout suggests that no lessons have been - or will be - learned.

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