If a party intends to put across a new message, consistently, then it is important that it chooses reliable people, in tune with the message’s ethos, to communicate it. The Ulster Unionist party has a vitally important vision to articulate just now. It is engaged in critical work, seeking to normalise politics in Northern Ireland, and strengthen the Union by offering voters here genuine participation in British politics.
This is the most exciting development for Northern Irish unionism in a generation, and it requires steadfast, firm leadership to see it to its conclusion. That means leadership which is prepared to ensure its party’s more regressive voices do not become predominant.
If you were leader of the UUP, and one of your representatives implied that your Conservative allies were ‘wide boy liberalistos’ you might think it clever management if you declined to use that representative to front a major policy paper. You'd be right.
Coverage of the ‘Putting Things Right’ document, released yesterday, was focussed on a relatively short passage which dealt with policing and justice. The post below observes that initial reports were based on misinterpretation of a relatively straightforward section of the report. Unfortunately the paper has been attributed to hard-line finance spokesman, David McNarry, who has subsequently failed to emphasise that this is a finance document, preoccupied with devolving policing and justice only insofar as its funding is concerned.
The MLA gave a rambling, incoherent interview on Radio Ulster and, consequently, a document which the UUP had intended to present as its deconstruction of Northern Ireland’s financial problems became accepted, so far as the media was concerned, as the party’s veto on devolution of policing and justice; and an attempt to outflank the DUP on its hardline wing. This development occurred completely unchallenged, with the UUP apparently oblivious. It represents another publicity foul up for the Conservative and Unionist coalition.
I appreciate that McNarry claims the report’s authorship, but I’m sure it was based on much wider input. The Strangford MLA is not sensitive to the ethos of inclusive politics and he is not likely to flourish if the Tory connection is strengthened. From a purely presentational perspective, this document would have benefited from being fronted by a more nimble media performer and from the perspective of party development, a more moderate voice would have been more appropriate.
The incident exacerbates the sense that the party’s leadership is rather lackadaisically engaged with the UUP / Conservative project and is inept in the subtle arts of media management. There remain suspicions that outstanding issues have been allowed to drift, and will re-emerge in the autumn, a disaffected MP and several ambivalent MLAs amongst them.
The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists got off to a satisfactory electoral start and the future should be bright for the alliance’s constituent parties. But the UUP in particular must recognise that a Rubicon has been crossed. It must embrace wholeheartedly the dispensation to which it is committed. That means more care, more attention to detail and more willingness to apply discipline when it is needed.