From the outset I have expressed anxiety on this blog that the UUP has not shown itself sufficiently committed to the project of pan-UK unionism. There has been, throughout the process, a suspicion that the party believes it can hedge its bets.
The ink had barely dried on a deal when Sir Reg Empey affirmed that his party had an exit strategy available, if the pact did not yield immediate electoral benefits. The UUP’s North Down MP, Sylvia Hermon, could not have made more explicit her unwillingness to take the Tory whip, yet no action has been taken. We have had endless prevarication on the selection of candidates.
I’ve asked countless times, and I’ll ask once again, how does the party expect to sell the benefits of an electoral alliance which it has persistently demonstrated its ambivalence toward?
I appreciate that there might be an element of tactics to the UUP’s ’unity’ preoccupation. A quick genuflection to the idea in order to deflect DUP criticism and on with the real task in hand. But if this is a tactical manoeuvre it has badly misfired. Where previously ’unionist unity’ was an aspiration for the more myopic elements of ’little Ulster’ unionism now it has become an expectation. The DUP’s troubles have been largely eclipsed.
And at the heart of the business, figures like Tom Elliott, Danny Kennedy and David McNarry, each a prominent Orangeman. Surely that tells a story in itself? The more progressive members of the party appear to have been left out in the cold.
With the big prize of normal politics in Northern Ireland within grasp, a government committed to a Union in which Northern Irish politicians would play a part, the ear of an explicitly unionist British prime minister, we become tangled up in anachronistic cultural preoccupations and the clamour of those ancestral voices. There remains the suspicion that the UUP is more intent on a little Ulster pact rather than one which spans the United Kingdom.
On a parochial level, local activists will wonder on what basis they have spent so many years fighting the DUP, taking the foulest most histrionic abuse, arguing that Ulster Unionists offer something better and different. On a more philosophical level there will be questions about whether the type of unionism which the UUP wants to take forward is actually animated by a genuine commitment to membership of the United Kingdom or whether it owes more to the Orange sash, the Lambeg drum and disdain for the Republic of Ireland. Does it have a positive or a negative vision?
The answers will emerge, I imagine, over the next day or two. They had better be good, or else the recriminations will begin. The UUP might think that it can balance the two, but I quote Arthur Aughey's 'Under Siege', a pivotal unionist text, on the contradictory demands of secular and cultural unionism.
"First that the government should recognise the right of Ulster people to be full citizens of the United Kingdom; and secondly that there should be no further erosion of the protestant heritage. In principle there is nothing contradictory in these two demands, but in practice, the [first] philosophy was founded on those assumptions of protestant supremacy found in the Orange Order, and the second demand was fundamentally at odds with the first. In short, the first represents a defensible, just and universal claim to equality of citizenship in the state; the second represents an indefensible, insupportable and particular claim to set the conditions of citizenship. Protestants, like catholics, have a right to expect equal treatment and equal respect in the United Kingdom, but they do not have the right to stage provocative marches wherever they like, whatever traditional expectations and common prejudice might demand. And of course the same rule applies for nationalists."