Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Why Submarine Steve’s torpedo aimed at the DUP could leave the UUP with that sinking feeling

Aiken’s determination to contest all 18 Commons seats may yet backfire on his own party, writes Nelson McCausland

Incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken
Incoming UUP leader Steve Aiken
Nigel Dodds of the DUP
Nelson McCausland

By Nelson McCausland

After so many months of political uncertainty, we have at least one certainty: there will be a general election on December 12.

However, even that will be one of the most unpredictable elections in a long time.

In England, the Liberal Democrats will be seeking to make gains, especially from Labour, while the Conservative Party will be seeking to fight off the threat from the Brexit Party, who will also want to pick up seats from Labour.

There will be a very different dynamic in Scotland and a different dynamic in Wales, while here in Northern Ireland the constitutional issue will still be very much to the fore — especially at this time.

Some seats here will be fairly predictable, with Sinn Fein dominant in some constituencies and the DUP dominant in others.

But some will certainly be tightly contested and the SDLP will be hoping to take back the Foyle seat in the North West from Sinn Fein.

The announcement by the incoming Ulster Unionist leader, Steve Aiken, that the UUP will fight all 18 seats and that there will be no arrangement with the DUP has certainly attracted a lot of comment.

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Some journalists have, rather condescendingly, described his decision as “brave”, while other people have described it as lobbing in a “political hand grenade”.

However, in unionist communities across Northern Ireland, it has caused much ire and antagonised many people.

It may have been an act of bravado, but I suspect it is more to do with his lack of political experience. Steve Aiken was only elected to Stormont at the Assembly election in May 2016 and had less than a year of politics under his belt before Sinn Fein collapsed the Assembly in January 2017.

Before that, he had been in charge of a submarine, but commanding the crew of a submarine is very different from leading a political party, and a role which requires very different skills.

After leaving the Navy in 2011, he moved to Dublin, where he worked with the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce and then Dublin City University. In both roles, he lived in Dublin and seems to have taken little interest in politics.

Indeed, he has said that, over several decades, “he had little interest in politics”, and had voted for a variety of political parties, including the Alliance Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Mike Nesbitt encouraged him to join the UUP, but had to concede that it took three years to get his new recruit to “commit himself to us”.

Whatever unionist party they vote for, most unionists want to see a unionist elected and they dislike inter-unionist dogfights.

For that reason, Steve Aiken would do well to reflect on the assessment of former UUP chairman David Campbell, who has accused him of “declaring war on unionists”.

Unlike Steve Aiken, David Campbell grew up in a family where his father was a UUP councillor and he himself has years of political experience. For that reason, Steve Aiken would do well to reflect on David Campbell’s assessment.

So, what of the DUP? Their party conference took place on Saturday against a background of Boris Johnson’s deal, which most unionists view as an act of betrayal, a view that has been well articulated by DUP MPs. It was, therefore, a somewhat subdued Saturday.

Nevertheless, there was a resolve and a resilience, two qualities which unionism needs and which it has often shown in the past.

Those qualities will stand the DUP in good stead in the coming weeks, especially if Steve Aiken carries through with his threat and continues his tactic of targeting the DUP, rather than Sinn Fein.

The fact is that the UUP is not strong enough to take on veteran campaigners, such as Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson, and Aiken’s targeting of the DUP could well rebound on him.

He is the leader of a party with no MEP and no MPs, a party that fared badly in two previous elections.

That is the reality and unionist voters are not going to allow themselves to be misled by his grandiose delusions.

He may divide unionism, he may damage unionism, but in the end his own party will be even worse off than it is now.

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