Belfast Telegraph

What's so funny about being a liberal unionist?

The UUP leadership contest gives the party a chance to steal the DUP's centrist clothes. It has nothing to lose, says Robin Wilson

There are really only two scenarios for politics in Northern Ireland today. The political class and the media may remain obsessed with the now-obsolete nationalist/unionist argument, but we are not living in 1912 and stable devolution provides a best-of-both-worlds third way.

The real choice is not whether there will be a border in Ireland, or there won't be; there will, but it will be an economic, social and cultural bridge, rather than an impermeable political barrier.

The alternatives are these. We could forever endure a conservative, communalist carve-up of power between authoritarian, monopoly parties of true believers - the current DUP-SF unholy alliance - which declining numbers of voter would be wheeled out periodically to endorse.

Or we could progress towards a normal, democratic society governed by a shifting, cross-communal coalition - its shape framed by the voters - with a vibrant Opposition in the Assembly.

The first scenario may be stable, but it is the stability of inertia and stagnation. Since ordinary citizens get bored with Groundhog Day, they are turning off events at Stormont in their droves: a survey commissioned by the Assembly itself found voters more exercised by international affairs than by what was happening on the hill.

The second scenario will be very difficult to realise, because the current structures of devolution, with their communally-defined offices and vetoes, tilt the electoral playing field towards those parties most committed to a sectarian political arms race.

But the dramatic, eight-point drop in turnout for the 2011 Assembly election indicated that citizens were beginning to vote with their feet against the status quo.

A straw in the wind came the previous year with the Westminster election victory by Naomi Long of Alliance over DUP First Minister Peter Robinson, in his East Belfast heartland.

Allying Alliance's non-sectarian liberalism to her own working-class background, Long secured a big vote from the disillusioned and the disenfranchised.

In that sense, the SDLP made a serious political mistake last year in choosing Alasdair McDonnell as leader over someone like Conall McDevitt, who could have presented a modern, non-sectarian, social-democratic face. It now risks terminal decline.

The SDLP assumed the Labour mantle from the old Northern Ireland Labour Party under the leadership of Gerry Fitt. The emerging Labour in Northern Ireland, whose conference took place at the weekend in Belfast, looks like it may be ready to grasp it.

And now the UUP - otherwise on its political death-bed - has a huge choice to make. In a normal society, liberal, socialist and (environmentally) Green progressive parties face a significant centre-Right party, which makes a reasoned case for moderate conservatism.

Any UUP member not persuaded that that is how the party should redefine itself to survive has to ask two questions: are there more moderate conservatives than sectarian bigots in Northern Ireland? And are there some Catholics ones? It's a no-brainer.

If the UUP can re-constitute itself as such a secular political force, it could yet play a role in moving the Northern Ireland political axis away from its meaningless ethnic polarity - now defined more by collusion to concentrate power between the DUP and SF than by competition between them - onto a typical Left-Right spectrum.

As ex-UUP adviser Alex Kane has repeatedly argued, in that context a strategic decision to go into Opposition in the Assembly - rather than maintaining a short-term, myopic hold on an irrelevant single Executive seat - is the way to go.

Such a decision would put pressure on Alliance - itself smarting from the childishly partisan decision by other Executive parties to demolish a Government department serving the public just to reduce its number of seats at the top table - to reconsider whether it wants to be party to a cynical arrangement so foreign to the ethical ideals its members largely embrace.

Alliance had a good 2011 election because it wore its liberalism on its sleeve. As citizens started to see a vision of a new Northern Ireland politics, they might not only consider parties like the Greens, currently with a single-MLA toehold in the Assembly, but also Labour, if the UK Labour party ends its ban on members in Northern Ireland standing for election - a denial of voter choice introduced in deference to the SDLP and no longer sustainable.

There is no reason why the 2015 Assembly election should not see these two scenarios in competition. That should be the vista which the new UUP leader should present to galvanise the troops and broaden its base.

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