Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Aiken right not to play patsy to the DUP but it could damage unionism

The Ulster Unionist Party’s Steve Aiken (Liam McBurney/PA)
The Ulster Unionist Party’s Steve Aiken (Liam McBurney/PA)
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So that went well. The 'no pacts' UUP policy appears in trouble even before the new leader has taken the helm to implement what he announced this time last week.

It must have been an exciting ride on Steve Aiken's submarines if they U-turned so quickly.

Normally UUP leaders at least get a fortnight's grace before upsetting some of the members.

Yet what the UUP leader was attempting was understandable and honourable.

There is no point the UUP playing patsy to the DUP. Fielding a candidate in each of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies made good sense as a statement that the UUP is a proud, independent party in its own right.

Given the failures of the DUP's cosying up the Conservatives and involvement in numerous controversies, it was logical to want to take a different unionist vision to every constituency.

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But what Aiken was attempting was the electoral equivalent of MAD - Mutually Assured Destruction - which most people tend to think is a bad idea.

In taking on the DUP in North Belfast, effectively inviting the DUP to do likewise to the UUP in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the chances of defeat for all unionist competitors soared.

There is a school of thought that the only way the UUP can regain its status as top dog in unionism is by allowing DUP scalps to be taken by others.

Cut the DUP's elected numbers, then they don't appear so dominant and the UUP comes back.

So internal fights within the unionist family might be functional.

Parity of numbers will help the UUP to get across its different form of unionism from the DUP's, runs this line of thinking.

The ousting of Nigel Dodds as an MP would certainly be big within unionism.

But ask most unionists, even those long-resistant to the DUP's charms, whether they want a unionist MP or a Sinn Fein representative and you won't be surprised to hear it is not the latter.

Nearly one-in-five of the UUP membership may say they "strongly dislike" the DUP, but ask the faithful whether they like Michelle O'Neill's party and you'll find 99 in every 100 UUP members not replying in the affirmative.

Only 13% say they like Alliance, for goodness' sake.

So presenting Sinn Fein with possible electoral gifts is a tough internal sell.

Most unionists want electoral pacts. It's not an easy logjam for any UUP leader to overcome.

A shrewder approach might have been to use facts to hide pacts and declare that the UUP "will stand wherever we have a chance".

That recognises the electoral realities whilst keeping at least some distance from the DUP.

In fairness, it is not only the UUP struggling with pacts.

The much-vaunted remain alliance in South Belfast has yet to appear.

The remain parties are too equal in vote shares and too different in outlook to unite.

You cannot fuse Alliance, the SDLP and Sinn Fein into a single vote.

Although each protest against Brexit, Sinn Fein must hardly be able to believe its luck at the type now envisaged by Boris Johnson - considerable economic detachment of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and a united Ireland in terms of regulation and customs.

Illogicality is hardly confined to the UUP so far at this election.

Nigel Farage's determination to take on the Conservatives in marginal Labour Leave seats is the "Brexiteer versus Brexiteer equals remain" equivalent of "UUP versus DUP equals Sinn Fein victory".

In 2015, with UKIP receiving nearly 13% of the poll, for each vote Farage's party received from Labour voters, four came from previous Conservatives.

So, in what are somewhat misleadingly called "Labour leave" seats, the Brexit Party's arrival in 2019 is more likely to peel votes from the Conservative candidate in the constituency than from Labour's.

Remember that almost two-thirds of Labour voters voted Remain in 2016, admittedly slightly less in northern England.

It was the Conservative vote which delivered Brexit.

By taking Conservative votes, Farage could prevent Johnson achieving a majority - which in turn might mean Brexit never happening.

That logic makes anything considered by the UUP in recent days a masterclass in comparison.

If bereft of a majority, the bespoke Boris Brexit won't be happening and most unionists can breathe a sigh of relief.

The DUP gets off, whilst the UUP can claim vindication for its opposition to Brexit.

It is at that point that a serious intra-unionist debate might be staged on the future of the Union and around varieties of unionism.

Except that, if there is another minority government, it will be unstable and we could all be voting again come Easter.

After another unionist row about pacts.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on the DUP and UUP (Oxford University Press)

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