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.