Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

Why uniting unionism is no laughing matter

A UUP-DUP electoral pact would drive moderate pro-union voters into the arms of the Alliance Party. That's not good for unionism, argues Owen Polley

Sir Reg Empey will not be UUP leader by the end of the week. His imminent departure from the post leaves colleagues with a lot of thinking to do. Their choice of successor will determine the type of party which emerges from the latest election debacle.

Predictably, the counts were barely underway last Thursday night, when a clamour for 'unionist unity' began. For grassroots Ulster Unionists it is tempting to demand that their leadership should take this route, but in fact, it leads only to electoral irrelevance for their party.

Alliance's impressive performance across Northern Ireland demonstrates there is a demand for centre-ground politics here.

Naomi Long - the new MP for East Belfast - is a perfect example of a candidate who draws support from small 'u' unionists, in spite of refusing to play the Orange card. She appeals to people who want to remain part of the UK, but are repulsed by the snarling politics of the DUP.

If Ulster Unionists agree to a communal pact, they will chase thousands of voters into the arms of Alliance. They will also kill moderate, pro-union politics in Northern Ireland and copper-fasten our status as 'a place apart' within the United Kingdom.

There is certainly a need for the UUP to conduct a post-mortem after the Conservatives and Unionists electoral wipe-out.

Failure to claim any seats at the General Election is a devastating blow, but it cannot be ascribed to a thirst for 'unionist unity'. In fact, the unity talks which leading Ulster Unionists conducted at Hatfield House marked the beginning of the DUP's comeback.

Just at the point at which Peter Robinson and his party were at their most vulnerable, Hatfield created a neat diversion. If the DUP were a 'beaten docket', as Sir Reg Empey insisted, why was the UUP conducting talks about intra-unionist co-operation?

Along with the policing and justice saga Hatfield House relieved the pressure on a party which, at that point, looked dead in the water. The DUP wriggled off the hook through tenacity and political cunning, but they were aided and abetted by the UUP.

UCUNF's candidate selection procedure helped foster the perception that, however damaged the DUP, Conservatives and Unionists didn't offer a credible alternative.

It became a long, drawn out, occasionally fractious, saga, which suggested that the New Force was coming apart and managed to alienate prospective Catholic candidates.

The group's opponents were quick to take advantage, with the mantra 'unionist unity'. Rather than dismiss the idea of unity candidates out of hand, the UUP sent out mixed signals. The culmination was UCUNF's decision to withdraw its candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

Not only were the group's cross-community credentials undermined, not only did it break its own self-imposed ordinance to field candidates across all 18 constituencies, but it also exponentially increased the pressure to withdraw from South Belfast, to the detriment of UCUNF's able young candidate, Paula Bradshaw.

There are lessons a new UUP leader should draw from this election: the party should be consistent and purposeful; it should give candidates a fair opportunity to build up their profiles in important constituencies; it should not let opponents dictate the pace or content of its campaign.

Whether these lessons will be learned too late to affect the UUP's link with the Conservatives, we must wait and see.

Sir Reg Empey was the driving force behind the pact and, when his tenure as leader comes to an end, the party might well decide that the 'New Force' should come to an end, too. It is highly unlikely that the Conservatives would join a three-way tryst with the DUP in advance of an Assembly election, if that is the route Ulster Unionists choose.

But, although the Tory tie-up has been clumsily executed, it still has a great deal to recommend it. It positions the UUP as an outward-looking party, whose unionism is based on a positive political allegiance to the UK.

In stark contrast, the DUP has been unabashed about its contingent relationship with the rest of the country.

As it became increasingly clear that a hung Parliament was the likely result of Thursday's election, one party source even suggested that "England's difficulty" could be "Ulster's opportunity".

Some senior UUP figures have little difficulty with this approach. David McNarry is a vocal champion of a single unionist party based around 'a shared identity'. Danny Kennedy and Tom Elliot - two MLAs touted as possible leaders - are known to be sympathetic to the notion of 'unity'.

If the UUP does bury its differences with the DUP, however, it will leave moderate pro-Union voters without a political home. That cannot be good for unionism.

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