Wednesday, 9 February 2011

UUP shooting the messenger

The following is the original copy for yesterday's Belfast Telegraph article - which is now online.

Who’s to blame for the Ulster Unionists‘ latest batch of problems? According to Mike Nesbitt, they’re the media’s fault. The Strangford Assembly candidate told Stephen Nolan recently that journalists are driving a “narrative” which creates difficulties for the UUP.

If that sounds a bit like shooting the messenger, Tom Elliott sounds like a man determined to shoot himself in the foot. In a newspaper interview, the Ulster Unionist leader blamed party members’ negativity. Low morale, “is being caused by our own people”, Elliott complained.

Slamming your rank and file isn’t clever politics, but the Fermanagh Assemblyman is closer to the mark than Nesbitt. The Ulster Unionists’ problems are largely of their own making. The party is wracked with confusion, mixed messages and indecision.

A couple of weeks ago the UUP looked set to embrace a fresh new strategy when it threatened to reject the Executive’s draft budget. Finance spokesman, David McNarry, announced that his party was “unable to endorse” the document. It seemed that the Ulster Unionists had chosen their battle-ground for May‘s Assembly election.

Almost immediately the back-pedalling began. Less than 48 hours later, McNarry explained that the UUP might support the budget after all. The party simply wanted more detail and, for the time being, it was reserving judgement.

It wasn’t exactly a U-Turn. The Ulster Unionists had left a gaping semantic escape route through which to wriggle: refusal to endorse the budget was never the same as actively opposing it. Still, for the interested observer, it looked like the party came perilously close to adopting a clear, comprehensible position, only to lose its nerve at the last moment.

Outright opposition to the budget would be a risky strategy for the Ulster Unionists. It only really makes sense if the UUP is prepared to withdraw its ministers from the Executive altogether, if their concerns are not addressed.

The party eventually got the worst of both worlds - raising the possibility of resisting the budget and then apparently backing down. It bewildered its own representatives, never mind floating voters. Larne Borough Councillor, Mark Dunn, became the latest defector, criticising the party for its unwillingness to leave the Executive to form a voluntary opposition.

The sense of disarray was heightened when the UUP announced a pre-election pact with the DUP in North and West Belfast. After attacking its unionist rival over the budget and accusing it of carving up power with Sinn Féin, in practically the same breath, the party struck an electoral arrangement with the DUP at local level.

It’s no wonder observers are confused. Even as they edge towards a deal with yet another party, it’s still not clear what shape the Ulster Unionists’ existing link with the Conservatives will take, post-UCUNF.

Tom Elliott managed to prolong the two parties’ relationship, when it looked like local Tories would contest the Assembly election, but the UUP distances itself from its national partner one moment and defends it the next . The Conservatives now plan to open a campaign office in Northern Ireland, suggesting that they intend to field their own candidates in the future, possibly against Ulster Unionists.

The UUP only has itself to blame if unanswered questions are construed as another symptom of confusion and division. Some Ulster Unionists clearly support the Conservative connection, while others want nothing to do with the Tories. In a similar vein, one part of the UUP is itching for a final electoral show-down with the DUP, while another wants ’unionist unity’.

Admittedly the issue of Executive membership is a knottier dilemma and one which the party shares with the SDLP. Can smaller parties effectively challenge the DUP and Sinn Féin while remaining junior partners in government?

It would take extraordinary courage for the UUP to make the leap into voluntary opposition. But, as it stands, Ulster Unionist ministers share responsibility for Executive policies over which they have little or no influence. The party must resolve that conundrum, otherwise it will remain a whipping boy for the DUP or worse, become its little brother in a ‘unionist unity’ arrangement.   


DR said...

Owen, your own article is confused, and you answer your own questions, full opposition to the budget would involved going into opposition, but there is no role for opposition in the current system, it would have to be created, and to be realistic 17 MLAs out of 108 is not strong enough to manufacture that role at present.
Therefore the current position of abstaining on the budget is the only real option, and as we can see bit by bit it is falling apart as it is clear the figures, few as they are, down add up.
With regards Tom and Mikes views, probably both are right to an extent, but Tom more-so in that even if it was 99% media spin and 1% reality, taking on the media rarely if ever works, Mike should know that and maybe he knows just how much you can push it.
As for election "pacts" all sorts of official and unofficial agreements are needed under the STV system, not jut with the DUP but say at times with the SDLP in South Down and who knows even with SF if dissidents became an electoral threat someday!

Chekov said...

God DR. You do send yourself jumping through logical hoops after the UUP rabbit.

Whether the UUP chooses to go into opposition or not, and you repeat the difficulties which I raise, there is a serious problem if the party is perceived to set out its stall on the budget one minute and then change its mind the next. You can go through all the 'oh but we actually said this and it was misinterpreted' stuff if you like, but that was the impression given. So the UUP is abstaining. Well, whether you like it or not, and whether it's the party's fault or not, that's makes it look impotent.

The BT added the byline about opposition being the only option. I didn't say that. I said that the party had to resolve the conundrum of having powerless ministers in government. I acknowledged that that's treacherously difficult, but I suggest that being all over the place on issues like the budget certainly doesn't help!

As for Mike Nesbitt, just how far you can push it? Push it why? To what avail? To sound paranoid or as if you're in denial? If media treatment of the UUP isn't kind, it's because there are so many opportunities. If you miss one crisis then the next one will be along in a minute.

By the way tactical voting is not the same as striking a specific agreement with a party. That's a pretty silly and, may I say it, a confused point.

Belfast Gonzo said...

Take it you've seen this?:

thedissenter said...

There is plenty of room within 'the system' for opposition, simply no money or 'official' place within the current structures. All it takes to be in opposition is principle.

Chekov said...

I have Gonzo. An interesting response to quite a wide ranging critique on the UUP. Mike's obviously most exercised by the sentence devoted to him.

Anonymous said...

MN has history, he denied TE said anything about the GAA and Gays then it was found out to be true. Now he says he didn't criticise the press when he obviously did.

He could get himself a reputation if he isn't careful.

Mike said...

Just been watching Hearts & Minds, Michael McGimpsey being interviewed by Noel Thompson.

More than once, under Thompson's challenge of inaction, McGimpsey trumpets the reduction of 19 Health Trusts down to 6 as an example of how he has introduced major reform rather than avoiding it.

- November 2005 - Shaun Woodward (Health Minister) announces the Health part of RPA, chief among which was that 19 Trusts would come down to 6
- 1 April 2007 - the 19 old Trusts are dissolved, and the new 6 Trusts come into being. (still under direct rule, the Minister being Paul Goggins)
- 13 April 2007 - Michael McGimpsey named as the UUP's choice for Health Minister when devolution is restored
- 8 May 2007 - devolution restored and McGimpsey takes office as Health Minister.

Is McGimpsey trying to mislead the people into thinking he achieved a major reform that was actually planned, carried out and completed under direct rule?

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