Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Why the UUP can't be written off just yet

The UUP's 75 local councillors, all but two from outside Belfast, suggest that, away from the Stormont bubble, Robin Swann's troubled party may yet live to fight another day, says Ed Curran

Alex Baird, UUP, who topped the poll in Fermanagh and Omagh speaking with other elected councillors for Erne West, Anthony Feely, Sinn Fein, Adam Gannon, SDLP and Chris McCaffrey, Sinn Fein
Alex Baird, UUP, who topped the poll in Fermanagh and Omagh speaking with other elected councillors for Erne West, Anthony Feely, Sinn Fein, Adam Gannon, SDLP and Chris McCaffrey, Sinn Fein
UUP leader Robin Swann

By Ed Curran

It is the question that has haunted unionists ever since it was asked by Terence O'Neill 50 years ago: what kind of Ulster do you want? More pertinently, the question today should be: what kind of unionism does Northern Ireland want?

In the aftermath of the local council and European election results, the answer is blowing in the wind of political change sweeping across the UK and Ireland.

Nothing is likely to be quite the same again for any of us. We are witnessing such seismic shifts in British and Irish political and social behaviour that old certainties pertain no longer. What of Britain's political future? What of Ireland's religious change?

Caught between this maelstrom of social revolution down south and political upheaval across the water, unionism in Northern Ireland - and nationalism - needs to respond and adjust as never before.

If our political leaders fail again, they will consign this place to being a backward-looking outpost as viewed from Britain and from the Republic, too, where a youthful society is changing socially and morally at breathtaking speed.

As the dust settles on startling European election results, the Ulster Unionist party is left to lick more wounds and to face yet another inquest on its seemingly irreversible decline.

After half-a-century of keeping itself to itself on polling days, has the silent minority, if not majority, emerged from hibernation to prove there is a place for the Alliance Party in such a divided society?

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The statistics over the past 25 years of first-preference votes for the two parties tell the story. In 1994, the Ulster Unionists had 23.8%, or 133,000 votes, an Alliance candidate, 4.1%, or 23,000. In 2019, Danny Kennedy, of the Ulster Unionists, had 9.26%, or 53,000, and Naomi Long, of Alliance, 18.26%, or 106,000.

The Euro election produced freak results because many people here, as well as in Britain, saw an opportunity to re-run the referendum of 2016.

That especially applied to the many Remainers, including traditional unionist voters, opposed to the DUP's diehard Brexitness and willing on this occasion to either stay at home, or vote for Naomi Long, as so many thousands did.

We will have to wait until the next time to know if Long's undoubted personal charisma, or her party's pro-Europe stance, proved the deciding factor, or if it was frustration and protest over the lack of government at Stormont.

What is certain is that Alliance marketed itself better than any other party, with its simply understood election slogans and poster campaign in both the local council and Euro polls.

In contrast, the message of the Ulster Unionists was confusing and the choice of a Remainer candidate only served to add further mystery as to what the party really stood for.

As before, the question is asked again: where do the Ulster Unionists go from here? The options narrow, as most have been tried before; from entering an understanding with the SDLP to toying with closer links with the Conservatives.

What's left is to soldier on, which is most likely the only option its lifelong members will countenance, or to contemplate the unthinkable: a merger with the DUP.

The Ulster Unionists have been struggling to find a distinct message ever since the DUP capitalised on the unease and suspicion within the unionist community about the Good Friday Agreement.

The party found itself trapped between those who adhere to traditional unionism and those willing to embrace a more progressive policy, but the election results show it is failing on both counts.

Having leaked tens of thousands of votes to the DUP, it has failed to withstand Naomi Long's challenge and lost out to Alliance.

Bleak as all this appears, the Ulster Unionists are far from done just yet. The party's strength lies in its 75 councillors elected last month, continued proof that, at least at local level, many unionists are simply unprepared to support the DUP.

This is particularly the case in rural Ulster. For all Arlene Foster's popularity among unionists in Fermanagh and Tyrone, the DUP in her local council is outnumbered - six to eight - by the Ulster Unionists.

Also, unionist voters remain divided narrowly in other areas.

For example, in Mid-Ulster, the DUP has eight councillors and the UUP seven. A similar split exists in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon - 11 DUP and 10 UUP. In Newry, Mourne and Down, four DUP to three UUP.

The political reality of Northern Ireland is that, where the Alliance Party barely exists rurally, the Ulster Unionists are strong. For example, for all the Alliance Party's excellent showing in the council and Euro elections, it has not one council seat in Mid-Ulster and only two out of 40 in Fermanagh and Omagh.

Conversely, the Ulster Unionists have only two councillors out of 60 in Belfast and the Alliance Party and DUP have eclipsed the party in other areas in the east of Ulster.

A superficial analysis of the Ulster Unionists might suggest that the party has nowhere to go. That is not borne out by its continued strength west of the Bann, where it seems the divide in unionism is harder to define at local, rural level.

The differences between the attitudes of some DUP and UUP councillors, especially in rural areas, is finely nuanced.

Both parties retain their separate structures and still harbour their differences over the bitter splits which began with the emergence of the DUP in the 1970s and the defection of Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson and many more, from one party to the other.

As things stand today, the Ulster Unionists are ebbing away in Belfast and other eastern areas, overwhelmed by the DUP and now losing out to the Alliance Party. What is left is the mainly rural rump of a once-powerful party which will soon be marking its founding fathers' contribution to the birth of Northern Ireland almost a century ago.

The DUP has retained its dominance at the polls, but the clear message from a majority of voters - many of them unionist - is that the party's position on Brexit is out of step.

That begs the question as to whether the DUP will lend its support to whoever is chosen as the Conservative successor to Theresa May, a big call given the parlous state of Westminster heading towards Brexit Armageddon in the autumn.

And will the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, survive herself, as the publication of the RHI inquiry findings looms in the weeks ahead?

The contents of Sir Patrick Coghlin's report will surely have a major bearing, if not on Mrs Foster's future, then certainly on the workings of Stormont, the civil servants, special advisers and role of Executive ministers in the scandal.

Finally, there are the talks themselves, with a heightened expectation that maybe a breakthrough can be achieved this time.

The public mood, since the murder of Lyra McKee, is certainly willing the political parties to find a way to restore Stormont.

A Northern Ireland, ungoverned, or ungovernable, a century on from its foundation and two decades after the Belfast Agreement, spells no future for anyone, unionist and nationalist, and the new silent minority alike.

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