I would be less than honest if I didn’t acknowledge that my concern over an early Westminster poll arises partially due to the complete unpreparedness of the UUP.
Confronting the need for structural change to the party and making real progress in defining the party’s role within the realignment of unionism has been put off, supposedly to this autumn. A snap poll will catch the party napping - rudderless and divided on the direction it should take.
In this context I was interested to read O’Neill’s comments defending the need for more than one unionist party. His observations come in the wake of ludicrous comments made by one of the UUP’s plodding, traditionalist foot-draggers – Billy Armstrong – advocating a merger with the DUP.
O’Neill counters the argument for one unionist party correctly, by raising the electoral flexibility afforded to voters by proportional representation. He also hints at a point which I think needs to be developed. Having more than one unionist party means that more pro-Union votes are recorded. The flip-side of this is that many unionists would not consider voting for a monolithic unionist / Ulster nationalist amalgamation headed by Paisley or similar.
Armstrong and other cultural unionist remnants in the UUP disregard the philosophical subtleties within unionism because they are quite comfortable with the concept of voting in ethno-religious communal blocks. They ignore the substantial number of unionists who are not happy to vote for a party on this basis and who wish to vote for a party genuinely committed to the concept and entirety of the Union.
Those within the UUP considering the party’s future course tend to fall into two categories and both are wrong-headed. There are those who wish to follow the electorate into DUP territory in attempt to claim back the votes lost to that party, and those who see the priority as mopping up votes from the Alliance Party. Both approaches are inclined to let the party be led by the electorate rather than showing real leadership and a will to explain a political position properly. Both labour under a common misapprehension about unionism.
Advocating a more liberal stance than the DUP does not mean equivocation on the issue of the Union. The liberal aspect is simply an acceptance of liberal democratic, inclusive British values and a refusal to enter the murky ground of communal politics. What is regarded as liberal unionism is actually far more securely grounded within the political traditions of the United Kingdom, provides far greater assurance of the continuance of those traditions in this part of the British Isles and is in a literal sense, much more identifiably, steadfastly unionist than anything advanced by the DUP. Constitutionally it shares nothing in common with the ambivalent neutrality of Alliance.
The task of the UUP should be to delineate itself properly from the DUP as proponents of non-communal unionism which genuinely values the benefits of remaining in the United Kingdom and our ties to its institutions and to challenge the DUP as to how genuine their commitment to the union, as opposed to their commitment to one community within it, is. Only in accepting these principles and committing to advance and explain them to the wider community, can the UUP recover lost ground and go forward in representing inclusive unionism in Northern Ireland and beyond.