Thursday, 6 May 2010

High stakes in South Antrim.

The following piece was commissioned by a newspaper, but, as yet, it hasn't been published. Clearly, it will be out of date tomorrow, so I can safely post it here.

The tone is rather downbeat. At the time it was written the cry of 'unionist unity' was at fever pitch. But the thrust of my piece is similar to the blog I wrote yesterday. This is a defining election for unionism. The stakes couldn't be higher.

And with that I will post the article and go to vote - for Paula Bradshaw - the only candidate standing on a unionist prospectus in South Belfast.

They say that success has many fathers while failure is an orphan. It is likely that UCUNF will be abandoned, unwanted, by its political parents, if it does not flourish in the general election. The child of a whirlwind romance between the UUP and the Conservative party, its birth created a sense of optimism among unionists, but it has hardly been a case of ‘happy families’ since.

Sir Reg Empey, the matchmaker who nudged this courting couple down the aisle, has staked his political reputation on the marriage and its awkward offspring. His decision to stand in South Antrim is brave, some would say foolhardy, but there is logic to the gamble.

Empey’s leadership is already linked, inextricably, to the fortunes of UCUNF. If he fails to win South Antrim the Conservatives and Unionists are unlikely to do well in the forthcoming election. If the Conservatives and Unionists do not do well the New Force is unlikely to survive. If the New Force does not survive Sir Reg will no longer be the UUP’s leader.

The stakes are high, but Empey’s candidacy is simply an acceptance of political reality. His party embarked upon this project because it was floundering and badly needed a ‘big idea‘. Not only does its leader’s survival now depend on a creditable election performance, so too does the UUP’s future as a viable, moderate unionist alternative to the DUP.

This election represents a struggle for the heart and soul of Ulster Unionism. Its result will determine which one of two routes the party will take. Will it face outwards, engage with the rest of the United Kingdom, and commit to a modern and inclusive future? Or will it turn inwards, accept the notion that Northern Ireland is doomed to be a place apart and consign itself forever to the margins of British politics?

Each direction has its advocates within the party and their disagreement has been gleefully exploited by the DUP with its incessant mantra of ’unionist unity’. The moderate, non-sectarian credentials upon which the UCUNF edifice is supposed to be based, have been undermined by the UUP’s decision to back Rodney Connor as a ’unity candidate’ in Fermanagh South Tyrone.
It graphically illustrates different priorities within the UUP, that while the bulk of the party gears up for Westminster elections, and the possibility of playing a full role in national politics, a small faction seems focussed on negotiations with the DUP, ‘unionist unity‘ and the next Assembly elections.

Ultimately, though, the fate of the Conservative and Unionist pact will be determined at the ballot box. And Empey’s battle in South Antrim is the most critical seat of all.

If UCUNF does well, and Empey is elected, Northern Ireland could easily have a minister in the next government. With a small and influential group of MPs, based full-time at Westminster and involved intimately in the day to day business of national politics, the balance of power within the Ulster Unionist party should move decisively away from New Force sceptics.

If he wins the South Antrim seat, it will substantially strengthen Empey’s position as leader and offer UCUNF some momentum.

On the other hand, if Conservatives and Unionists do badly, and Sir Reg loses, the pact is likely to go into meltdown. The UUP will almost certainly seek a change of leader and it is probable that a New Force doubter, from the party’s traditional wing, could emerge as the favourite.

With the emphasis on UK politics diluted, pressure to merge with the DUP or strike some type of electoral arrangement would be intense. Indeed there might be little to choose between the two parties and unionists with a broader, national outlook would struggle to find a convivial home for their views within the UUP.

There is, therefore, a very real possibility that unionism could realign, in the aftermath of this election. The local Conservative party, if it is forced to cut its links with Ulster Unionists, would be best placed to mop up the larger portion of disillusioned UUP activists. Left leaning members, who could not be reconciled to a modernised Tory party, might attempt to coalesce around Sylvia Hermon.

Which would leave a rump of older or more traditional Ulster Unionists free to bury their differences with the DUP and concentrate on the ‘parochial stupidities’, which Arthur Aughey, a leading scholar of unionist politics, insists have hampered unionism’s efforts to become a modern, effective force.

It would be an unfortunate end to a political project which started out with high hopes and has, on occasion, been a vehicle for lofty ideals. If it is to be avoided, the Conservatives and Unionists need to return two to four MPs, to ensure the pact’s survival. One seat would give UCUNF a middling chance of lasting through the next parliament, particularly if it were won in South Antrim.

The truth is that Empey has little choice other than to lead from the front. His position, and the future of his party, is hanging in the balance.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Left leaning members, who could not be reconciled to a modernised Tory party, might attempt to coalesce around Sylvia Hermon." Mmmm.

There are only about a dozen of them and Sylvia Hermon could and would no more lead a group than Naomi Campbell.

I am sure Reg will be elected along with Rodney Connor but that leaves the project leaderless in NI while the Stormont 'team' will be concentrating on matters personal and parochial, as they only can. That was what devolution and the 'peace process' was for.

UCUNF was neither equal citizenship which died in 1987, nor electoral integration, as the purist Jeffrey Peel will attest despite his wife's despair.

It was a good idea which went with the grain of older unionism but until the money runs out the populist DUP will remain dominant.

GavBelfast said...

This may be minor detail, but is there any particular reason why there was no logo (eg. Vote for Change) on the ballot paper. Ringland (in my case) looked a bit empty compared to the other candidates, with their party logos on the ballot paper.

Chekov said...

A pact as opposed to a party can't register a logo.

Mike said...

I thought the same thing - to the causal voter the Conservative & Unionist on the ballot paper would have looked a lot less attractive to the eye.

Didn't Nicholson have the "Vote for Change" logo on the ballot paper last year?

Another problem I think is that having used "Conservatives and Unionists" on all election posters and literature, the ballot paper had the silly UCUNF title (which was probably a legal necessity).

Mike said...

I thought the same thing - to the causal voter the Conservative & Unionist on the ballot paper would have looked a lot less attractive to the eye.

Didn't Nicholson have the "Vote for Change" logo on the ballot paper last year?

Another problem I think is that having used "Conservatives and Unionists" on all election posters and literature, the ballot paper had the silly UCUNF title (which was probably a legal necessity).

Paddy Matthews said...

There are only about a dozen of them and Sylvia Hermon could and would no more lead a group than Naomi Campbell.

Sylvia, unlike any of the UCUNF titans, managed to get elected last night.

Perhaps if you crawl out to Donaghadee on your hands and knees and beg forgiveness, she might, just might, agree to take over the UUP leadership.

Anonymous said...

The problem with pact was that several of the leadership, including our chairman, did not wish to commit to it and saw 'Unionist Unity' as an attractive alternative if it could be achieved.

This lead to the selection of candidates at least 6 months too late or being imposed.

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