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.