For reasons which are too tedious to relate, I did not make it to Saturday’s UUP AGM. The media have largely chosen to ignore the meeting and concentrate instead on Peter Robinson’s cynical allusions about ‘unionist unity’, a concept which rather falls down if you don’t accept either that the DUP are actually in any meaningful way a unionist party, or even if they were, that unionism would draw strength from presenting itself as a community based monolith. Sir Reg Empey addressed the issue robustly in his platform speech.
I’d imagine Alex Kane’s Newsletter column will provide the most serious analysis available in the media of Saturday’s event; however those who cannot wait can proceed directly to the horse’s mouth and read Reg Empey’s speech on the restyled party website. Additionally a series of excerpts are available on the innovative ‘Unionist TV’ section of the site. Clearly when Sir Reg refers to the party providing modern “presentational and media tools”, action is being advanced alongside rhetoric.
The message from the UUP leader is encouraging in the light of perceptions amongst some within unionism, articulated by Ignited in the comments of a recent post. Very clearly Empey believes that having provided the machinery for a modern and effective party, the Ulster Unionists are now equipped to set about presenting a coherent, attractive and progressive set of policies. If, as Ignited suggests, the UUP are perceived to have somewhat taken their eye off the ball whilst concentrating on the review, Sir Reg’s speech indicates that plans are afoot to right that perception in a matter of weeks.
Empey deals with the ‘unity’ noises coming from the DUP early in the speech.
“So let me put it bluntly: the Ulster Unionist Party didn't endure the orchestrated abuse against us since 1997; or the tidal wave of attacks upon our integrity; or the vilification of our leading figures; simply to strike up a marriage of convenience with a DUP which is worried about the impact of Jim Allister.”
I am fully in agreement with the leader’s stance on this issue and the arguments against close cooperation with the DUP have been reiterated many times on Three Thousand Versts before. However Robinson’s approaches are a clever tactical ploy and must be treated with caution. The goal of unionist unity retains an emotional pull on many voters, who may not be subtly attuned to the ironies of the DUP propounding its case after years of fomenting division.
The UUP have to clearly differentiate what distinguishes our unionism from the Ulster nationalist flavoured variant favoured by the DUP. The DUP will unashamedly attempt to present the UUP as the divisive force within unionism when their advances are spurned, so it is incumbent upon Ulster Unionists to cogently argue that the two parties’ credos are not compatible and to explain clearly why this is the case. As Sir Reg hints, there may be areas of mutual benefit which make cooperation desirable, but this is the case in relations with the SDLP and Alliance parties too.
And in delineating the UUP’s policies from those of other parties, then robustly promoting those policies, the review should begin to bear fruit, along with the various efforts to present the party more professionally. The philosophical bedrock of the party is of course its adherence to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and a belief in the continuing value of the Union. The UUP is central and has been central in creating and sustaining that Union.
“The Ulster Unionist Party is, first and foremost, a party of the Union. The UUP is largely responsible for the physical shape of the United Kingdom that we know today. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the ongoing legacy of an Ulster Unionism that has its roots in the late 19th Century.”
It is a centrality which its leader is keen to maintain, on a national level.
“It may sound presumptuous for a provincial party to talk about national politics and the challenges facing the Union and the United Kingdom: …….. But there are new challenges to that Union, in the form of Welsh, Scottish, Irish and even little-Ulster nationalism.”
It is the totality of these challenges to the United Kingdom, rather than merely those particular to Northern Ireland which should be of concern to Ulster Unionists.
“I have always believed that the United Kingdom offers the best constitutional, political, social, economic and cultural future for all of its citizens. It is better than any other constitutional alternative I can envisage. And that's why I am an unashamed and unembarrassed Unionist. That's why I want the Ulster Unionist Party to champion a Union that is of benefit to all of us.”
“It is vital that we build a pan-Union front, involving like minded parties who believe in the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. And it must spread to the European Parliament as well. The Union and the United Kingdom cannot survive if those who believe in it fight their own corners separately.”
“It's about building a better Northern Ireland. It's about promoting the Union. It's about defending the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”
Let's hope this strident pan-Unionist approach is carried forward.