Tuesday, 28 August 2007

It's opposition or bust for the UUP

The most vibrant and vital debate within Ulster Unionism continues to rage rather publicly on the Young Unionist blog.

Many have picked up on the archaic structures of the party, which eschew top-down discipline and allow dissenting voices in the public domain thus undermining a consistent message to the electorate. Whatever people’s views on the need for modernisation to party structures, it is blatantly obvious that a vigorous debate is needed within the party to establish what that coherent message should be.

As someone who considers the present administration as effectively a SF / DUP coalition and regards those twin nationalist parties with the utmost distaste, it is hardly surprising that I see opposition as an opportunity for the UUP to distance itself from them and to present a coherent vision opposed to the current sectarian, ethno-nationalist carve-up.

Ulster Unionist concern about the d’Hondt mechanism and its incompatibility with accountable and democratic government dates back to the Trimble era. The party should support ultimate constitutional change, which would establish adversarial government in the Assembly with the requirement of an opposition and a cross community coalition government. There is no question of abolishing the notion of power-sharing and re-establishing unionist majority government. Cross-community requirements should remain and allow new, healthier alignments to emerge, but without opposition only an allusion to democracy is being made.

D’Hondt is not the only solution to ensuring power-sharing. In fact it is a very poor one which the process became fixated on. Abolishing d’Hondt but ensuring power sharing principles through other mechanisms can be the first stage in normalising politics here, now that the broad principles have been almost universally accepted.

For the time being the mechanism is in place and the UUP would be excluding itself from any administration by going down the opposition route. Ideally this decision should have been made prior to Assembly elections (a decision which really would have turned up the heat on the DUP and linked them inextricably to their enthno nationalist bedfellows in SF). Unfortunately the clock cannot be turned back, but self-exclusion is still the route to go if we truly believe the rhetoric we present about DUP / SF (and God knows I do). In time the benefits will accrue electorally and the SDLP will be sorely tempted to follow suit, providing a de facto moderate, cross-community opposition.

There remains reluctance within the party to make wide-ranging or dramatic changes. Despite every commentator’s insistence that internal reform is needed to make the party effective in the modern climate, change has been painfully slow for example. It is up to senior figures in the party to grasp the gravity of our situation and to have the bravery to make a bold decision to arrest the decline. Opposition may seem anathema to a party which was once the only party of government, but electoral oblivion is surely a less enticing prospect, as is being tied to the coat-tails of the DUP as a junior partner with Ulster nationalism having obliterated genuine unionism.

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