Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Avoiding relapsing into 'managed decline'

The Ulster Unionist Party holds it’s AGM this Saturday and Alex Kane has been contemplating the role of the party’s structures (which Sir Reg Empey has been in the process of overhauling) in preventing modernisation. Kane’s view is that throughout unionist history, when pivotal opportunities presented themselves to the UUP to modernise, become more pluralist and thus to make Northern Ireland a more stable entity, the party’s leadership was hampered by its decentralised structure and its various disparate pressure groups.

Kane raises former leader James Molyneaux’s diagnosis that “we must reassess every facet of our structures and overhaul every aspect of our operations”, and acidly notes, “the reality, of course, is that Mr Molyneaux didn’t do that”. The ‘broad church’ approach to the unionist party made top down change impractical and contributed to Molyneaux presiding, Brezhnev-like, over a period of unionist stagnation from the late 70s through to the mid 90s, during which political developments left unionism behind and serious reverses were inflicted.

The connection of UUP internal party organisation to the history of unionism and Northern Ireland as a whole constitutes an interesting angle, and when David Trimble began to move unionism into a position whereby it was taking the initiative, internal difficulties would form a significant barrier which he was forced to work hard to overcome. However the failure, until recently, to actually provide a dynamic for change is rooted in a deeper unionist malaise.

In his conversations with Frank Millar
, David Trimble characterises the approach of his predecessor as the party’s leader, Molyneaux, as ‘managing unionism’s decline’. The ambition which Trimble set himself throughout his tenure was to move the leadership of unionism from a position whereby it saw its purpose as ‘managing decline’ to a position from which it actively sought to strengthen the Union through engagement with the governments and other parties.

Trimble effected this change. From a position in which the Anglo Irish Agreement was imposed on unionists without any consultation, unionism became central to the process which culminated in the Belfast Agreement. But the process must be continued. With the DUP and SF ascendant in a sectarian, carve-up administration, replete with mutual veto, the capacity for unionism to retreat into recalcitrance and inertia is very real.

It is up to the UUP, streamlined into a modern and effective party, to relentlessly work to solidify the Union and present the case for its continuance, whilst reflecting the pluralist values which typify the United Kingdom. That the DUP, with its sectarian DNA, it Ulster nationalist impulse and its illiberal tendencies cannot do.


Ignited said...

Alex Kane, although always interesting, has been one of the biggest hypocrites during the review process; talking about discipline, branding and everyone one 'on message' and yet he has built his media career on criticising and deconstructing the UUP position - sure he used his newsletter column during the 2005 leadsership campiagn to attack Reg in favour of McFarland. But that aside...

The UUP has dropped the ball since concentrating on the review. Their website www.uup.org has not had its main page updated since March 12th. Where are the UUP policies? Where has Reg been? Yes by all means sort out the structures, but dont forsake the politics.

None of the current UUP elected reps are capable of delivering visible change - look to the future elections and get a new generation blooded on councils.

You would almost think Alex Kane has a job waiting for him post-review - maybe that would explain his good behavior of late.

Chekov said...

Ignited I take your point to an extent, but I happen to believe that this review is of paramount importance. In a post on your blog you give the Conservative Party as an example of a party which has come back from the dead. For a considerable period of time the Tories were deferring policy questions by claiming that matters were still at review. Losing sight of detail in the short term does not mean necessarily that the work will not pay off long-term. The fundamentals are being put in place and the ideas are sound.

Ignited said...

Point taken - but don't get me wrong I am definitely not against the UUP review, but continually exasperated by it. The Conservative Party in comparison to the UUP always had policy (whether you agreed with it or not) and firm political beliefs. The UUP (and the same can be said for the other NI parties) did not, and while the setlling in of devolution takes place it is a time for experimentation and giving the policy team a chance to flex their muscles. This has not happened. Don't be part of a government without policy of your own. I would question the decision to take executive seats if the party was intent on going on a policy hiatus to deal with its internal problems.

Anonymous said...

Strange how reference is made to Trimble's role in reviving unionism but no mention of his belief that NI needs to rejoin the political mainstream.
The obvious way forward is for UUP to merger with the Conservatives.

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