Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: It's too early to write an obituary for UUP

It is often remarked that the two political parties which took the biggest risks for peace in Northern Ireland - the SDLP and the UUP - paid the biggest price for the courage of their convictions. They created the mould for power-sharing in a devolved administration, but were mauled by the more street-wise Sinn Fein and DUP.

While it appears that the SDLP is set for extinction in some merger of convenience with Fianna Fail, the Ulster Unionists are in a stronger position, even if that is not reflected in their ability to win or even retain seats at every level of politics here.

Professor Jon Tonge's book on the party contains a lot of illuminating information. Not least of the suprises is his revelation that in spite of its travails, the UUP still has a bigger membership than the DUP. Where it differs is in the strength of its activism - too many UUP members seem disheartened by the party's losses at local and Westminster elections.

What it has failed to do in recent times is put clear water between itself and the DUP on policy. The same charge has been levelled at the SDLP in its struggle against Sinn Fein. Yet there are distinctions between the two brands of unionism.

The UUP is a more rural-based party, regards itself as more middle-class and is very pro-devolution. Only about one in three supports same-sex marriages but more than half would want Northern Ireland's abortion laws liberalised. It is a party that is less overtly religious than the DUP, and among elected representatives there are fewer ties with the Orange Order - and only a quarter of those who joined in recent times were members of the Order. There is obvious hostility between the two unionist parties, which is hardly unexpected given the rancour on the hustings since the turn of the century.

So can the UUP recapture some of its influence of yesteryear? It recognises that retaining the Union depends on convincing Catholics/nationalists that they are better off in the United Kingdom than in a united Ireland. Yet, in percentage terms, it has even lower Catholic membership than the DUP. However, it does appear to be more open to reaching across the divide.

The problem for all but the two major parties in the province is that political discourse has been reduced to toxic soundbites pitched to ensure a sectarian headcount at elections. Reclaiming the middle ground will be difficult, but we should not be writing the UUP's political obituary yet.

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