Planet UCUNF needs to come back down to earth
The UUP should co-operate with other local parties instead of focusing on an Ulster Unionist-Conservative pact, writes Jeffrey Donaldson
The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCUNF) have had a terrible time lately, but someone had to sit down and write a newspaper article to extol its virtues.
Beyond the attempt to pretend that nothing had happened and everything in the UCUNF garden was rosy, there was a vitally important question raised: what is the best way forward for Ulster's Unionists?
Before I discuss the alternative strategies offered by the different unionist parties, I must emphasise the value of greater co-operation between the unionist parties.
The more unionist voices representing Northern Ireland in Westminster the better. A car advert explains how seven is more than three; it is plain to see that 12 unionist voices speaking for the Union and Northern Ireland are better than 10.
Such a development would help the unionist vote. The public demand for it is clear.
A pact, or unity candidates, would energise unionist voters in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast and boost unionist confidence across the Northern Ireland.
A unionist has not regained a Westminster seat lost to nationalism since 1983; two lie within our grasp. This is a real, tangible goal that can be achieved within weeks if the UUP will agree to unite with fellow unionists.
With only a month to go to the likely close of nominations, I re-iterate: the DUP stands ready and willing to agree candidates in these constituencies. The DUP sincerely hopes that David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey will act humbly and wisely on this issue.
As to future strategies offered by the unionist parties, UCUNF unsurprisingly omits the glaring holes in their arguments. A pact with a single national party is a one-trick pony. The national party can only implement its manifesto if it gets elected. How much of the Conservative manifesto in 1997 was implemented? Or 2001? Or 2005? None. Because they didn't get elected.
The national polls tell us that a Tory victory in the upcoming Westminster election is far from assured, with a hung parliament possible. Even if they clear the electoral hurdle any relationship with a national party needs to be based on trust and proven ability to influence thinking and action.
Let's overlook the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Framework Documents and Downing Street Declaration of previous Tory administrations. David Cameron in one speech said something positive about the Union.
So what is David Cameron's word worth? Sadly, it seems to be worth very little. He gave a "cast-iron guarantee" that the British people would get a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He broke his word - even before he faced the pressures of government. This is not a solid foundation for trust.
What about their ability to influence one another? They continue to bicker about candidates. They have pushed out the only existing UUP MP. David Cameron admitted he couldn't get the UUP to vote for the return of policing and justice powers to Stormont, yet it is claimed that hundreds of Tory MPs will gladly walk through the lobbies for the UUP's wish-list. Hardly seems likely. Don't get me wrong. It would be great if Ulster's unionists had a national party they could place their eternal faith in. It would be good if that party were the one that was always elected as our national government. It would be perfect that, in the competing regional interests of the Union, this national party would prioritise tackling issues like developing the private sector in Northern Ireland over the demands of southern England.
Sadly, I and the rest of Ulster's unionists live on planet earth - not planet UCUNF. They know none of these can be guaranteed, so they need a strategy that can deal with that.
Ulster's unionists need a strategy of a strong and united voice to represent them on the national stage of Westminster. They need a party that will work to maintain healthy relationships with the range of political parties. Ulster's unionists need an approach that can be applied regardless of who is the national government. The possibility of a tight election result or hung parliament makes this the most sensible strategy for unionism.This is the strategy that the DUP offers. This is the strategy that will keep unionism moving forward.
Jeffrey Donaldson is DUP MP for Lagan Valley