Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Reality bites for UUP leader-in-waiting as Union trumps any poll showdown with DUP

UUP leader-in-waiting Steve Aiken with former party leader Tom Elliott
UUP leader-in-waiting Steve Aiken with former party leader Tom Elliott
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Steve Aiken might be wondering whether to give Doug Beattie a call to see if he fancies the UUP job after all.

There are still a few days to go before the UUP confirms its new head and Aiken must have aged a decade already in the leader-to-be role.

Given how things have gone on election pacts, the question begged is whether the UUP actually needs someone in charge.

The DUP seems to fancy itself at running both unionist shows.

Arlene Foster's party announced on Saturday that it would step aside to allow Tom Elliott a free run as UUP election candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Given that Elliott has yet to be confirmed in that role, the DUP statement scored highly on the presumptuous scale.

Obviously, the DUP's apparent generosity was entirely conditioned by North Belfast self-interest.

The UUP had little option yesterday but to announce its own absence from the contest involving Nigel Dodds. Steve Aiken's statement justified the move by condemning Sinn Fein for its absence from Westminster, while announcing his party's decision to stay out of part of Northern Ireland's capital. In explaining a dramatic but predictable reversal, the UUP declared itself "a party that believes first and foremost in the Union". Therein lies the essence of the Aiken dilemma.

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Unionism and the Union trumps all among most unionist voters.

They may like or dislike certain unionist parties, may take a dim view of a unionist party's tactics or strategy - there was a sizeable DUP Remain vote, remember. They may be social liberals or conservatives and be far from enamoured with individual unionist elected representatives. But they are unionists whose core politics is the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And the logical deduction those voters make is that the defence of the Union involves maximising unionist representation.

That is why successive surveys of unionist voters and party members have shown that large majorities support election pacts.

Those preaching loftily about the need to avoid sectarian headcount politics suffer from amnesia.

Head-counting, according to national and political tradition, is what formed Northern Ireland, shaped its contours and is maintained explicitly under the border poll terms of the much-vaunted Good Friday Agreement.

It is a grim and reductionist politics, for sure, but it is one in which a party with a monopoly supply of unionist or nationalist votes shapes the agenda.

See Scotland, where the three-way split in the unionist vote between the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats has seen the SNP dominate for more than a decade, with independence versus the Union the daily political conversation. It has been an unfortunate start for the UUP leader-elect - thrust, like the outgoing Robin Swann, into an early general election at an awkward time and even, appallingly, having his staff threatened.

With the UUP dismayed at how the DUP was so blindsided by its supposed allies, it was understandable why Aiken's initial instincts were to take on his unionist rivals.

But at a time when the unionist parties are united in opposition to the Government's Brexit plan, splitting the unionist vote risked being seen as self-indulgence.

So, to no one's surprise, retreat has followed and there will be unionist election pacts after all.

Of course, neither the DUP nor UUP will call them pacts.

A new term is needed.

A confidence-and-supply deal perhaps? They always end well...

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on the DUP and the UUP.

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