A confused functionary of the Ulster Unionist Party from North Down has defected to the DUP. It isn’t clear if Mark Brooks, who chaired the party’s branch in the constituency, supports Sylvia Hermon’s stance on the Conservative and Unionist pact, or whether he feels that the leadership was not firm enough in its treatment of the errant MP. Whatever analysis he prefers, it nevertheless seems an odd choice to join a party which has little in common with either Lady Hermon or the Conservatives.
Despite a lack of clarity in Brooks’ press release, his defection has the potential to further unnerve UUP members, already unsettled by Hermon’s denunciation of the Tory deal. Indeed party leader, Sir Reg Empey, himself sent out a number of ambiguous, even contradictory signals, when he fielded interviews with the BBC yesterday, on ‘Stormont Live’ and ‘Evening Extra’.
Although much valuable work has been done in creating the Conservatives and Unionists shiny new force, there remains an apparent degree of equivocation on the Ulster Unionists’ part, which threatens to impede further progress and which suggests, at least to me, that some elements within the party have not fully comprehended that the point of no return was passed some time ago. If the deal is operated half-heartedly, or if the UUP attempts to prune it back, I believe the repercussions will be very serious.
Yesterday, Empey on one hand emphasised the ‘long term’ nature of the initiative which his leadership has brought about, but on the other hand he implied that the dispensation was being ‘tried out’ and could easily be reneged upon, after the general election, if the electorate did not immediately show its enthusiasm for the pact. I appreciate Sir Reg might be trying to still butterflies which Hermon’s intervention has kicked into motion in some UUP stomachs, but it is my feeling that, in the midst of an election campaign, he should be striving to stiffen sinews instead.
For the past year or so, indeed for longer, if one traces back the thinking which preceded the new force, the UUP has been stressing the ‘pan UK’ element of its unionism. It has promoted the idea that it will offer full participation in British national politics to the electorate in Northern Ireland. And it has presented itself as the party interested in ‘big United Kingdom’ issues as well as the local concerns which animate regional assemblies. The UUP has, at times, been realistic enough to acknowledge that implanting this understanding of its project in voters’ consciousnesses might take time. But its Conservative partners, or those that matter, seem to recognise that too and have indicated that they will show patience.
So what alternative design do UCU sceptics within the party now envisage it offering the public? How do they think it could go about explaining the dismantlement of a message which it has just begun to impart?
Could the party seriously explain to the electorate that it had decided not to offer it access to national politics after all? That it had changed its mind about the importance of Westminster, of government, of participation in United Kingdom wide politics? That it no longer believed the ability to vote for a party of government comprised an important aspect of ending Northern Ireland’s semi detached status, or accorded its people a crucial entitlement associated with their citizenship? Or indeed, could it hope to convince voters that none of these things any longer represented a significant advance for unionism?
Important unionist principles are embedded into the thinking behind the new force. The party will leave itself without a shred of credibility if it disclaims them before they have been thoroughly and repeatedly tested against the electorate.
It is not as simple as trying something a little different, hitching a ride on the coattails of a popular national party, and then hopping off when it is expedient, in order to carry on as before. If, after the general election, the UUP were to attempt to sever its link with the Conservatives, a substantial number of defections would follow and confidence in the party would reach a new low.
Which is why there is no value in the Ulster Unionist leadership hedging its bets on this campaign, or on the Sylvia Hermon issue and it is nonsensical for members to suggest that it can!
Lady Hermon cannot stand in the Westminster election, for the UUP, without seriously undermining her party’s campaign (if the Conservative connection is to endure). Even should she, by some Damascene miracle, decide that she did wish to represent UCUNF, her commitment to the force would clearly be in question. And any suggestion that she could somehow stand, as an Ulster Unionist, but outwith the Conservative and Unionist alliance, is self-evidently nonsensical. To field 17 candidates with the intention that they would sit on the government benches, if elected, and one party colleague who planned to join Labour in opposition, is, to put it mildly, untenable. It would insult the intelligence of Northern Ireland’s electorate to put before it such an arrangement. The only scenario whereby Lady Hermon could realistically stand, as an Ulster Unionist in the next election, is if the UUP withdraw from UCUNF, which would be an act of political madness.
The reason that the Ulster Unionist Party badly needed an idea, in order to rejuvenate its fortunes, was that it was in a sorry state. The Conservative link has provided that idea and, as it happens, it is a very, very good one. Its strength is that it seeks to consolidate a modern, inclusive United Kingdom, comprised of self-confident component parts, each participating fully in vibrant national politics. The idea is compelling enough to improve the UUP’s fortunes in the short term and benefit unionism in the long term. There are no viable alternatives for the party.
Which is why it must galvanise behind the idea and sell it, with resolution, to the electorate.
Rather than mollifying doubters, it is the leadership’s role to explain that the Conservative link is now the only show in town, if the party wishes to remain relevant.