Thursday, 13 May 2010

A resounding no to 'unionist unity'

The Belfast Telegraph's website doesn't seem to feature the article either, but in the print edition of yesterday's paper I argued against so-called 'unionist unity'. In the process I reviewed what went wrong for the Conservatives and Unionists (dodgy polls, Paxman interviews and the UUP's Assembly party aside).

I will link to the full article if and when it becomes available, but, meanwhile, this extract sums up the argument:

There is certainly a need for the UUP to conduct a post mortem after the Conservatives and Unionists electoral wipe-out, but there is real danger that the party will focus on all the wrong lessons.

The Tory link-up had its first electoral outing in Europe, but it was built for Westminster. Its failure to claim any seats at the general election is a devastating blow, but it cannot be ascribed to a thirst for ‘unionist unity’. In fact the unity talks which leading Ulster Unionists conducted at Hatfield House marked the beginning of the DUP’s comeback.

Just at the point at which Peter Robinson and his party were at their most vulnerable, Hatfield created a neat diversion. If the DUP were a ’beaten docket’, as Sir Reg Empey insisted, why was the UUP conducting talks about intra-unionist cooperation?

Along with the policing and justice saga, a pig in a poke which the DUP nevertheless spun as a paradigm of effective politics, Hatfield House relieved the pressure on a party which, at that point, looked dead in the water.

The DUP wriggled off the hook through a mixture of tenacity and political cunning, but they were aided and abetted by the UUP.

UCUNF’s candidate selection procedure helped foster the perception that, however damaged the DUP, Conservatives and Unionists didn’t offer a credible alternative. It became a long, drawn out, occasionally fractious saga, which suggested that the New Force was coming apart at the seams and managed to alienate prospective Catholic candidates.

The group’s opponents were quick to take advantage, with the mantra ‘unionist unity‘.

Rather than dismiss the idea of unity candidates out of hand, the UUP sent out mixed signals. The culmination of this process was UCUNF’s decision to withdraw its candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

Not only were the group’s cross community credentials undermined, not only did it break its own self-imposed ordinance to field candidates across all eighteen constituencies, but it also exponentially increased the pressure to withdraw from South Belfast, to the detriment of UCUNF‘s able young candidate, Paula Bradshaw.

There are valid lessons that a new UUP leader should draw from this election. The party should be consistent and purposeful. It should give its candidates a fair opportunity to build up their profiles in important constituencies. It should not let opponents dictate the pace or content of its campaign.

Whether these lessons will be learned too late to effect the UUP’s link with the Conservatives, we must wait and see. Clearly UCUNF endured a drubbing and some leading protagonists will question its value.

Sir Reg Empey was the driving force behind the pact and, when his tenure as leader comes to an end, the party might well decide that the ‘New Force’ should come to an end too. It is highly unlikely that the Conservatives would join a three way tryst with the DUP in advance of an Assembly election, if that is the route Ulster Unionists choose.

But, although the Tory tie-up has been clumsily executed, it still has a great deal to recommend it. It positions the UUP as an outward looking party, whose unionism is based on a positive political allegiance to the UK.

In stark contrast the DUP has been unabashed about its contingent relationship with the rest of the country. As it became increasingly clear that a hung parliament was the likely result of Thursday’s election, one party source even suggested that ‘England’s difficulty’ could be ‘Ulster’s opportunity’.

Some senior UUP figures have little difficulty with this approach. David McNarry is a vocal champion of a single unionist party based around ’a shared identity’. Danny Kennedy and Tom Elliot, two MLAs touted as possible leaders, are known to be sympathetic to the notion of ’unity’.

If the UUP does bury its differences with the DUP, however, it will leave moderate pro-Union voters without a political home. That cannot be good for unionism.


rutherford said...

the tribal politicians need to go somewhere though. 'Unity' might be the carrot that moves them on.

If the realignment happened and a liberal force unshackled with dinosaurs came out of it, I would welcome unity tomorrow...

Phil Larkin said...

On the issues of possible unionist realignment and grounds for optimism, Liam Clarke has written an excellent piece in the Newsletter of May 11. In it, he argues that unionists of whatever hue should take heart from Cameron's commitment to the Union, and the fact that the Labour Party have long dropped their former pledge of Irish unity by consent. Although the sectarian nature of NI politics will continue for some time to come, and whatever result comes out of the last election for unionism, the future emphasis will have to be on prosperity for all communities in the north.

One of the core aims of the UCUNF was to secure a cut in the rate of corporation tax in NI to leave it at the same level as that in the Irish Republic. This aim should not be lost sight of, even though now is not the right time to call for its implementation. To be fair to Sammy Wilson, he has recently stated that there should be greater debate on the issue of a corporation tax cut for NI, although he did not pour scorn altogether on the idea. Wilson emphasised the fear that cuts in corporation tax which simply leads to bigger dividends for company shareholders alone would not be an ideal aim. It is possible that any future cut in corporation tax should be made, at least to a limited extent, conditional on, for example, that company carrying out research and development. Both unionists and the SDLP should be at the vanguard of such ideas.