Majority of UUP members 'loathe DUP and don't want a merger'
A merger between the two main unionist parties would be "anathema" to many Ulster Unionist members, who loathe the DUP almost as much as they do Sinn Fein, according to the co-author of a new book on the party.
Professor Jon Tonge said there is "no magic wand" to revive the UUP's electoral fortunes, but he believes it is too soon to write its political obituary.
He predicted that May's council elections could offer Robin Swann's party the opportunity to make "modest gains" over the DUP if the RHI Inquiry report is published before voters go to the polls.
The book - The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party - will be launched later this month. Prof Tonge is a co-author along with Prof Tom Hennessey, Maire Braniff, Prof James W McAuley and Sophie A Whiting.
They conducted the first-ever membership survey of the party, speaking to almost 1,000 members. They also interviewed its five most recent leaders: Lord Trimble, Lord Empey, Tom Elliott, Mike Nesbitt and Mr Swann.
The book examines how, despite getting it "right" on the Good Friday Agreement and putting Northern Ireland before its own sectional interest, the party declined electorally as the DUP became the predominant unionist force.
"The markers which historically gave the UUP advantages over the DUP have disappeared," the book states.
"The UUP is no longer the party of the comfortable Protestant middle-class, who now either vote DUP or abstain in contemporary elections.
"As the DUP stole the political clothes of the UUP, moving from belligerence to relative moderation, the UUP has struggled to respond."
With the UUP securing just 10% of the vote in the last Westminster election - down 6% - Prof Tonge said it was struggling for relevance. "The 2017 election was disastrous for the UUP, wiping out its representation at Westminster. It lost both its MPs," he said.
"Had either Danny Kinahan or Tom Elliott kept their seats, the party would be in a brilliant position, given parliamentary arithmetic. That would have put it right back on the political map."
But he believes "the game is not up" for the UUP. "It has the finances, the members, and most importantly the tremendous loyalty of its members, needed to keep going. The question is to what effect?" With demographics and the decline of the SDLP meaning Sinn Fein could soon out-poll the DUP and take the First Minister's role, the UUP will come under pressure to merge with its unionist rival.
But Prof Tonge said there is negligible support for this within Mr Swann's party. "Fifteen per cent of the UUP want a merger - they've given up," he said. "Forty one per cent want an election alliance or pact with the DUP when it suits them.
"The vast majority are very opposed to a merger and it won't be happening any time soon. Even if Robin Swann wanted to go down that route - and he doesn't - he couldn't sell it to a membership who has stayed with their party through thick and thin.
"Most UUP members we interviewed spent more time criticising the DUP than they did Sinn Fein."
Prof Tonge said the "loathing" of the DUP was a hangover from the Rev Ian Paisley's belligerent political style, but that UUP grassroots harboured a particular dislike of Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson, believing that their party had never recovered from those defections.
The RHI Inquiry report may give the UUP an opportunity to make some electoral inroads, he said. "Politics is about trust and concerns about the DUP's competence in government do open up a flank to attack for the UUP," he added.
But Prof Tonge warned that the party needed to do more than hope the DUP would implode over cash-for-ash. He advised that it should "spend less time being negative about the DUP and Sinn Fein and more time developing its own positive agenda".
In particular, it needed policies to distinguish it from its bigger unionist rival. "The UUP could perhaps come out in favour of same-sex marriage as opposed to leaving it as a conscience issue," he said.
"I know it's not supported by a majority of UUP members but it would very much appeal to young unionist voters, and that's who the party needs to target.
"Brexit is another issue where the party could offer a clear policy difference to the DUP. The UUP was pro-Remain in the 2016 referendum. It was a very courageous position given that party members are split 60-40 in favour of Brexit. That stance disappeared the day after the vote was counted.
"If the UUP reverted to Remain or opted for the lightest of light Brexits, it would offer advantages to the party and put it onside with the majority of people in Northern Ireland."
The book argues that the UUP's future rests on its capacity to offer "an inclusive, non-sectarian and fresh unionism which is constitutionally robust".
Prof Tonge said that the last five UUP leaders - particularly Mr Trimble - had "recognised that the party needed to modernise and valiantly tried to do that in their own way".
He said Mr Nesbitt's popularity rating among members was higher than widely perceived.
"He certainly had his critics in the party and there were defections but he scored seven out of 10 among members we interviewed, which is pretty good for a party leader," he said.
Prof Tonge said Mr Nesbitt's decision to take his party out of the Executive and into opposition was a bold one supported by the membership.
He said that discipline in the party had improved since Mr Trimble's era when it was "structurally chaotic - a collection of 18 constituency associations with no central writ".
But he stated that the party's outside political dalliances - linking up with the Tories under Lord Empey, a DUP pact, and Mr Nesbitt's 'Vote Mike, Get Colum' position - had combined to create a confusing message for the grassroots.
Under Mr Swann there was a clear "vote Ulster Unionist, get an Ulster Unionist" approach, Prof Tonge said.
"Robin Swann has also tried to end the image of the party as 'Big House' unionists," he added.
"The UUP traditionally viewed the DUP as below-stairs - bigots and uncouths. The present leader has been keen to stress his working-class credentials."
Prof Tonge doesn't forsee any immediate reversal in UUP fortunes, but he added: "I remember Peter Robinson telling the DUP conference that the laws of politics mean no party remains top dog forever. That will give the UUP hope."