Belfast Telegraph

It's make your mind up time for weakened UUP

By Liam Clarke

David Burnside may have had the right idea when he proposed chartering opinion polls to see how the idea of unionist unity would go down.

The idea has a fatal fascination for the UUP; they circle around it, but fear to close in. And the price of their indecision has been a steady haemorrhaging of members.

It is not just the recent losses of the two MLAs, John McCallister and Basil McCrea. Other party stalwarts, like Terry Wright, a former deputy chair of the party, also dropped out when it came time to renew membership this year.

On the other side of the argument, there is a long tradition of people leaving because the UUP wouldn't close a deal with the DUP.

One recent example is Fred Cobain, a member for 30 years and a former MLA. He tried to broker a deal on elections with the DUP, aimed partly at saving his own North Belfast seat, but the party took fright at the last moment, leaving him exposed.

This year, Mr Cobain cut the knot and defected to the DUP, complaining that his former party was "riven with personal and policy divisions" and "politically exhausted".

Why can't the UUP keep up a consistent public line on unionist co-operation, as the DUP does? One reason is that closer co-operation would split the UUP, but unite the DUP.

At both the UUP and DUP conference last year, the Belfast Telegraph asked 50 randomly chosen party members, "Would you like to see a single unionist party, combining the UUP and DUP?"

In all, 78% of DUP members said Yes, but only 38% in the UUP agreed. Asked about forming electoral pacts in marginal seats, 90% in the DUP sample favoured the idea, but only 42% in the UUP. It is obvious that the UUP could splinter on this issue, opening up space for a new party. Many of the UUP members who wanted closer ties have already defected to join the DUP.

There they bang the drum for unity and take heart from the recent Mid Ulster by-election result, where a joint candidate, Nigel Lutton, increased the unionist vote by a few points.

Take Jeffrey Donaldson, who held his Westminster seat after defecting to the DUP in 2004. He believes unionist voters want closer co-operation and warned that any who "stand outside the growing consensus" will suffer.

An opinion poll of unionist voters would put this prediction to the test. It could also show that many voters, or non-voters, want more choice and diversity on the ballot paper.

What is obvious is that the UUP will slowly wither, unless it makes up its mind. David Burnside puts it succinctly. He favours a merger with the DUP and says "it would have been better done last year than this year and it would be better done this year than next".

Delay and indecision weakens the UUP whatever course it takes. It is robbing the UUP of the strength to stand on its own feet.

It also leaves it with less to offer the DUP in any future merger negotiations. This is death by a thousand cuts.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph