Saturday, 8 May 2010

A triple decapitation

In today's Irish News (subs required) I pick through the wreckage of the general election. All three parties describing themselves as unionist are in varying degrees of crisis, following the poll. I argue that Peter Robinson's position is not sustainable, after he suffered a "personal rejection" in East Belfast. And I ask whether Jim Allister can hold his party organisation together, solely in order to give him a pop at an Assembly seat in North Antrim.

Then to UCUNF's chances of survival. Sadly, I'm sceptical.

The Conservatives and Unionists intermittently emphasised their cross community pitch to voters, but Sir Reg Empey’s failure to unseat a divisive figure like Willie McCrea, in South Antrim, indicates that the approach failed spectacularly.

UCUNF’s tardiness in assembling a slate of candidates, a lack of Catholic hopefuls in the final list and the mixed signals it sent, by contracting a sectarian pact with the DUP in Fermanagh South Tyrone, all contributed to the New Force’s downfall. It is unlikely that the Conservative link-up will survive to fight another election and Sir Reg’s leadership will almost certainly fall with it.

Hard-line UUP Assemblyman, David McNarry, wasted no time calling for Empey’s head, delivering his verdict as part of a BBC panel which watched as the result from South Antrim was declared. He is known to favour a close relationship with the DUP.

And a call to realign in the interests of ‘unionist unity’ will be hard to resist for any new UUP leader, in advance of Assembly elections, particularly with grassroots unionists vehemently opposed to Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister.

The rationale of the UCUNF project was that it was supposed to make unionism look outward, towards mainstream UK politics, and Northern Irish MPs in government. Its failure gives the whip hand to inward looking unionism, focussed on traditional community divisions, and based around a single identity.


Secular progressive said...

At last a political analysis on 3000 Versts that has some relationship with reality! Pity it took a crash and burn election for you to get there.

Your blogging since the UCUNF lash-up has been (even if well-motivated) badly, unremittingly and relentlessly out-of-touch and increasingly tiresome.

People here don't like and don't trust Tories, whether Thatcherite, Cameronite or whateverite. Never have and doesn't look like they ever will.

In that respect, we're much like the Scots and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Welsh. If we are now to have a Tory government, it will, once again, be in spite of voters in NI, Scotland and Wales, not because of them.

The dislike and distrust towards the Tories crosses the traditional community boundaries in NI, even if it is more pronounced among nationalists. Ashcroft's bail-out of the UUP wasn't going to chnage that.

In this election, it fell to Sylvia to give a glimpse of what secular, inclusive unionism could look like. This she did by clearly setting herself apart both from the Bullingdon boys and the UUP backwoodsmen and was repaid handsomely at the ballot box.

The fact that Sir Reg, almost all of the UUP, you and other online cheerleaders got this so spectacularly wrong speaks volumes.

Can the UUP manage a U-turn on UCUNF? Can it create an inclusive home for pro-union, progressive people in NI? You have a lot of thinking, changing and convincing to do.

K D Tennent said...

So...does this tell us that the NI public have no appetite to take part in the mainstream of UK politics? People in Wales went back to the Tories in numbers, while in Scotland there was a swing to Labour. If it doesn't interest them, why not? Something to do with David Cameron's comments about reducing the state's role in the NI economy? As ever, with everything to do with 'Ulstermen', absolutely baffling.

Chekov said...

Thank you Kevin for that utterly condescending comment.

SP - Sylvia Hermon's is a triumph of personality over substance. And it's the utter short-signtedness of people like her that will prevent politics in NI ever moving towards normality in a UK context. We're forever doomed to be more and more peripheral to the rest of the country.

The Tories are the only party interested in taking NI into the British mainstream. And it's absolutely untrue that people here dislike or distrust them more than any other UK party. But the majority of so called unionists have no desire to be anything other than a place apart. Particularly as that status is more amenable to an untouched block grant.

And, unless that changes, unionism is heading towards a dead end. You can't expect forever to remain part of something, showing no will to make a proper contribution, just because you don't like the alternative.

If SH were working to bring Labour party politics to NI as an alternative to Conservatism, she'd deserve respect. She's attempting no such thing. Instead she courts the DUP and frenziedly wrings every last drop of emotion out of her actressey falsetto in order to emphasise her victimhood.

There are a whole list of reasons why UCUNF failed, but at least there was an attempt to do something positive,and to move unionism forward. Meanwhile we have so-called 'progressives' who seem to treat politics as if it were a football match and the Tories were Man Utd.

Timothy Belmont said...

I've eagerly awaited your initial response, Chekov.

It is necessarily pessimistic about the UUP's alliance with the Conservatives. Is there a future for the NI conservatives themselves?

The UUP vote in East Belfast doesn't seem to have shifted much, does it, since the New Force? Deplorable.

I am in no doubt that, Long is popular, assiduous, caring etc but I simply "don't do" the Alliance Party. Stop.

If the NI Conservatives put up a candidate, they may receive my vote.

CW said...

"it's the utter short-signtedness of people like her [Hermon]that will prevent politics in NI ever moving towards normality in a UK context"
Quite the opposite in fact Chekov - she's a Labour supporter who (quite reasonably) resigned from UUP because she didn't agree with the direction they were going in. Were Labour to properly organise in NI she would be likely to join. The fact that she attracted votes from both sides of the tribal divide would point towards a direction of normality in NI politics.

Having a clumsy acronym like UCUNF (which according to Deaglan de Breadun in the Irish Times sounds like something a drunk would shout in a pub after someone had spilled his pint) was doomed to failure.

And fielding photogenic celebrity candidates also turned out to be a bad move. Afer the result in Upper Bann, it looks like Flash Harry won't be singing "We are the champions" any time soon!

O'Neill said...

"In this election, it fell to Sylvia to give a glimpse of what secular, inclusive unionism could look like."

Care to outline where she outlined some of those secular, inclusive" principles? Thought not. Her's was a victory won on purely personal grounds.

"Can the UUP manage a U-turn on UCUNF? Can it create an inclusive home for pro-union, progressive people in NI? You have a lot of thinking, changing and convincing to do."

IMO, as soon as the communalist candidate was agreed to in FST, then the whole guiding principle behind the UCUNF had been dumped; when the going got tough, then the white flag was raised. Best for those genuinely interested in that principle to now start anew.

Answer to the second question, the UUP contains people with both pro-union and inclusive thinking. How they can manage to convince the rest of the party and more particularly the leadership that there is no point in trying to be essentially a DUP B Team competing to out-prod them on the old battlefields is another question.

Chekov said...

Wrong CW. Hermon was very quick to distance herself from Labour when it looked like it might be an electoral liability. On the contrary, she contracted a deal with the DUP. And not once was the argument put that national politics was the way forward, but in all conscience the anti Cunfers couldn't support the Tories. It was all framed in terms of any loss of independence being wrong.

Chekov said...

Couldn't agree more O'Neill.

CW said...

Did UNCUNF not also do a deal with the DUP to field a united unionist candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone? Did they not also do deals with the DUP to field single unionist candidates in nationalist constituencies back in the days when the Anglo-Irish agreeement was in force?

Slug said...


I think you're being too gloomy-though that is understandable. Yes it was a bad night. And yes mistakes were made. But the UUP Conservative relationship is a natural one. It brought forward some very good candidates - not all of whom were actually selected. This is important. Those that were selected did a good job in the campaign but didn't have time.

UUP and Cons must learn from the mistakes-certainly the ones you ran through-but not throw it all away.

The UCUNF's weak point (from my viewpoint as a non member but sympathiser) was the structure led to too many accusations of "unhappy marriage". The DUP could represent UCUNF MPs as "fettered" by the relationship-not standing up for NI. I think the inability to respond to this was a problem.

The relationship if it's to be developed needs to work more smoothly and perhaps a slightly less ambitious, more flexible, relationship might be wise.

Good aspects of the deal included standing on a joint Westminster manifesto, aspiring to reach out in a cross community way to others with similar ideas, taking the whip, and promising to form the government with the Conservatives.

But there was a sense that the local UUP (and perhaps local Cons) had lost autonomy and independence-UCUNF was not bottom up, locally rooted.

I think that people want to be part of the UK mainstream, but also want a party that is proud of NI and stands up for it when needed. A party that has a middle-NI rather than middle-England essence, and that brings that to the mainstream of UK politics.

What is this leading to? I don't know exactly. Perhaps a link up that allows more local autonomy and local control.

Chekov said...

CW - I can't make it much plainer that I thought the FST pact was a mistake and completely contrary to the rationale of the link up. You can't ascribe arrangements from the 1980s to an entity that didn't exist.

Slug I'll get back to you on that soon.

andrewg said...

I don't see how the UUP can survive in its current form. The mood appears to have shifted heavily in favour of unionist unity. Either the civic unionists get out and commit themselves to building a cross-community centre-right movement, or they will become irrelevant. With Assembly elections next year and the outside chance of another Westminster election before long, decisions will have to be made soon.

Anonymous said...

FST was certainly not sectarian (that is just what the nationalists love to hear) it wasn't even communalist; it was Unionist. And all the better for that.

UCUNF was inherently flawed from the outset being an alliance between a national and a provincial party whose purpose is ONLY the union.

Consequently it became silly when the contradictions emerged - the departure of the inexperienced Catholic Conservatives, the PC panic over homophobia, and the unity candidate issues.

As to Sylvia, she was never going to take discipline. Like her predecessor Jim Kilfedder.

Why bother when you can substitute popularity for party?

Tomagaddy said...

'Conservatives and Unionists' remains the best way forward for the UUP. Without the link to the Conservatives it will simply been sucked into 'unionist unity' nonsense and destroyed by the DUP.
Need candidates selected sooner and more slicker messaging

Chekov said...

FST was certainly not sectarian (that is just what the nationalists love to hear) it wasn't even communalist; it was Unionist. And all the better for that.

UCUNF was inherently flawed from the outset being an alliance between a national and a provincial party whose purpose is ONLY the union.

We'll let an anon through the net, long enough to say - absolute nonsense. The DUP is an anti-Irish nationalist party certainly. It's also pro 'Ulster', whatever that means. What it definitely isn't is unionist. It is not interested in the United Kingdom, other than what it can get out of it.

The whole point of Conservatives and Unionists was to move the focus away from the Union only. Because that type of politics is actually very detrimental to the Union. And has been since 1921.

deirdre said...

I think you're being unnecessarily pessimistic. When you take a closer look at the figures they're actually quite interesting. If you remove FST and North Down from the equation (can't be used as they don't split between the parties) then the UUP vote actually went up by about 1%, whereas the DUP vote dropped by about 4-5% overall. Indeed, in some areas there are second UUP Assembly seats back in play, and in Douth Down, John McAllister may be catching up with Jim Wells. Reg, I believe, could have carried South Antrim had he taken on the concerns of those living round Glenavy/Lough Neagh who are rightly concerned about the incinerator being sited there. Failure to capitalise on a very specific local issue may well have cost votes in SA. In terms of the wider pro-union community, we've seen a decrease of about 5% voting when all unionist patries/groupings are taken into account. I think this is because the voters are way ahead of politicians. Ordinary people are more worried about jobs, fuel prices, mortgage rates, healthcare than the security of the Union- mainly because they reckonn the Union is secure. Alliance picked up votes because they ran the positive campaign which I and others arqued we should have been running, and we should have been much quuicker out of the blocks. The method for choosing candidates was poor and Owen Paterson's half-baked foray into Unionist Unity talks was ill-advised. Incidentally that was why I threw the head, not because of non-selection as some have suggested.
I still believe this project offers the best chance for bringing us back into mainstream UK politics, where we should and need to be, and moving us past a sectarian headcount. We should be picking up the votes that Alliance is benefitting from, but moderate, liberal unionism needs to be better organised and more prepared to stand up to the playground bullies of unionism. We probably have a year before the next general election (if that) and people need to calm down, look at where mistakes where made and fix them in order to give us a chance. We also need to work out where we're going in terms of the Assembly as those elections are rapidly coming up.
This hasn't been a total disaster for moderate, civic unionism, but it was never explained completely and clearly and those who should have been articulating this view weren't allowed to do so for fear of scaring the horses.
I think this is still the way forward, but greater care and attention must be paid in order to benefit.

slug said...


I agree with you. I hope that you can somehow play a part - independent-minded women are these days an electoral asset in NI!

With the flopping of the TUV, and the fact that SDLP held up, the case for 'unionist unity' must now be much much weaker (not that I believed it strong before).

Turgon said...

I rarely comment on this blog as I am usually busy on others. However, I think the suggestions about Hermon are all correct. Yes it was personality over substance but her personality is a non sectarian, progressive representative. On the other hand the CUs had little substance beyond wanting to be Conservatives and the personalities were non existent apart from Nesbitt who was personality without substance personified.

One final point: I am sorry to be grumpy on this blog (I usually reserve my most caustic comments for republicans) and I know some of you must shudder to think of me: the ultimate tribal unionist blogger; and I am not even much older than any of you so my evil tendencies cannot be dismissed as those of an old foggy. However, the FST pact was not sectarian and if it was we have nothing to be ashamed of. The desire to remove the cheerleader for terrorists who is our non MP was entirely reasonable. The unionists of this constituency have suffered gravely under the guns and bombs of the IRA. If they wanted to get an IRA cheerleader out do not in any way blame them or scoff at them. If you are fighting someone like that all people of conscience should unite.

Gary said...

Bitterly disappointed. However, I think Slug and Deirdre made some excellent points.