Doug Beattie has a problem with women — the lack of them within his party and among his voters, that is.
His ill-judged tweets, past and present, landed him in trouble amid accusations of misogyny, among other things.
But there are wider issues for the UUP, long pre-dating his leadership, which this week’s saga potentially worsened: the dearth of women in the party and its lack of support from women voters.
A basic statistical trundle highlights the problem.
Only 40% of the UUP’s 2019 Westminster election vote came from women. The gender imbalance was the biggest of any party.
Only 15% of UUP’s 2019 council election candidates were women, the lowest of any party.
At the most recent Assembly election in 2017, only one-quarter of the UUP’s candidates were women. Rosemary Barton was the only woman candidate elected.
Across the six Assembly elections held so far, the UUP has managed to get 115 candidates elected to Stormont. Just 10 have been women.
At the first Assembly election in 1998, only 8% of UUP candidates were women.
Of the 81 MPs the UUP has sent to Westminster since 1918, only three have been women — and one quit the party while there.
Candidate supply is a problem, with male membership of the party far exceeding that of women.
It’s not that those men are dinosaurs. Only 11% disagreed with the proposition that “politics in Northern Ireland would improve if more women were elected” in our membership study of the party.
But while a majority of UUP women think that “there is discrimination against women in public life”, only 25% of their male party colleagues concur.
Three-quarters of women in the UUP think women are better placed to represent women’s interests in politics. Just over half of male members agree.
How do you address the under-representation of women? Not by quotas, if male UUP members have their way, with only 15% supporting the idea. Women within the party are split almost equally on whether women should be a fixed proportion of candidates.
Even amid greater centralisation of the selection process, UUP constituency associations — mainly male — guard their autonomy.
More than a decade after Sandra Overend, UUP MLA from 2011 to 2017, launched the Dame Dehra Parker programme (named after the first UUP woman to be elected to Northern Ireland’s Parliament) to encourage women to get involved in the UUP, progress remains painfully slow.
Gender imbalances within unionism are hardly confined to the UUP, of course.
Society, more broadly, and unionism, notably, has been reluctant to concede a bigger role for women in political life.
The DUP fielded four fewer women candidates than its main unionist rival in the last Assembly contest. But six of them were elected. And the DUP has at least had a woman leader in its 51-year history, whose rise to the top job followed her departure from the UUP.
The UUP is an outlier among the Executive parties, the only one never led by a woman. The party led by Beattie has had 117 years to find a woman good enough to do so, but the score is men 18, women nil. Maybe the UUP should merge with the British Labour Party.
The UUP’s women problem has more to do with Basil Brooke than Doug Beattie. It has been since the days of telegrams, let alone Twitter.
Beattie wants inclusivity, and you could say the behaviour exposed this week was out of (280) character(s).
The good news for the party leader is that most of its members won’t have seen the trouble he was creating, with 70% of UUP members saying they rarely or never use Twitter. Maybe Doug should follow their example.
The bad news is that lots of voters followed the story, and he may have twittered away his 12-point positive rating in last weekend’s LucidTalk Belfast Telegraph poll — the only leader in plus figures.
Beattie told his well-received party conference four months ago that “we deal with division, sectarianism, misogyny, racism, bigotry”. Indeed.
His one-man mission to make Boris Johnson look a statesman in comparison — the Beattie trounce — was bad, but his subsequent contrition was genuine. The mea culpa on Nolan was off the scale.
Briefly we wondered if he would fall on his phone and resign, but Beattie shrank to grow again, to borrow one of his opening phrases as party leader.
Yet there was never any internal threat to his leadership. Most senior party figures have had a go at the top job and lasted not much longer than the time it takes Doug to tweet a bad joke.
Robbie Butler remains the only credible replacement — insert your own firefighting gag here — but no one desires such a tough assignment, especially so close to a crucial election.
There was some cut-through with the story. I had academic colleagues in England with scant interest in Northern Ireland texting me with questions about it.
Beattie now faces the unwelcome complication of a defamation writ in the run-up to that election, but at least that will stop discussion of the saga — publicly, at least.
Given recent revelations, you might not pick Doug Beattie to lead a Save Ulster from Misogyny campaign. Nonetheless, he is genuinely committed to modernising his party and changing its appearance and composition.
Many still see him as a good man, but there are plenty of them within the UUP.
It’s the women who are missing — and this week’s episode won’t be changing that.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? (Oxford University Press)