Friday, 25 March 2011

UUP in need of Overriding Vision

The Ulster Unionist Party have had, by any account, a truly awful week: Party Vice Chair resigns after Michael McGimpsey decides not to go ahead with the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin; Special Advisor to Danny Kennedy, Brian Crowe is dismissed after some quite serious allegations about his conduct; and to round up the bad week, after Basil McRea and John McAllister gift Stephen Nolan an interview where they explicitly clash with their Leader over the prospect of Sinn Fein gaining the First Minister post, David McNarry just about lost all control on the radio and publicly lambasted the troublesome duo even calling into question their suitability as candidates.

On examination, the issue with Brian Crowe is actually the easiest for the party to deal with. This wasn't a problem with policy nor did it arise through internal party problems and as such it's hard to level any blame at the party itself. Embarrassing? Certainly, but it's one of those things that could happen to any party at any time, no matter who was in charge or how strong a party.The other two issues are the real indicators of just how much trouble the UUP are really in and that is because they highlight the big problem for the party: there is no joined up thinking.

It is almost impossible to have a truly democratic political grouping where all the members agree on all the issues. Those joining parties accept that there are compromises on policy that they have to make in order to be a part of something striving for something more important; that of an overriding vision of how you wish to govern and be governed. Look across the political spectrum across the UK and you will see that other parties, whilst having dissenters in the ranks, can still maintain discipline and present a truly united front when it matters, particularly at election time. Labour, for example, is filled with internal feuds and warring factions but they have a common purpose which is to govern as social democrats and shape British politics along the left wing. In Northern Ireland, the DUP remains a right of centre party with a strong Christian base. Those joining and supporting are under no illusions.

For years, the UUP's one overriding vision was that of securing Northern Ireland's position in the Union. Well, that job is done and there are very few who think that responsibility isn't safe in the hands of the DUP. If that's the case, what is the point of the UUP? What vision do they sell to their members? What are we for and what are we selling to the electorate?

It could be argued that the UUP offer, as they have always claimed, an open house where moderates are welcomed and religion not the issue of the day. Why then, has there been talk from the leadership of strengthening the links with the Orange Order? Not only does that exclude Catholics but it also sends a message to the more liberal Christians and those who aren't interested in religion at all that the UUP at heart, is still a party for Protestant people. That may be the message that the leadership want and it may even come to pass that it is indeed the plan but if so, say so and let your members know now so they can get behind it or leave. Of course, if the UUP do decide to go down that path the next valid question will be why not just join the DUP?

For me, the UUP has an opportunity to reshape the party along broadly moderate, centre ground policy. Unfortunately, the current leader is incapable. By all accounts, Tom Elliott is a nice man and a decent man but that counts for nothing in leadership terms. A leader who wants to revitalise and bring about reform needs to make tough, ruthless decisions. In this case, it will be the decision that costs the party a good chunk of it's membership as they go across to the DUP. A good leader would be prepared to take the risk in order to achieve the aim of attracting new blood into the party, united under a clear vision of what the party is trying to achieve.


  1. I agree with a lot of what you are saying, and have tweeted so, but I still don't see a solution within your post. Rather than be worried about the UUP losing voters to the DUP, you are losing sight of the fact that there are a multitude of voters out there who are tired of the mainstream political parties, whatever their affiliation.
    I too have no natural local political party I can feel comfortable within. That's why I am looking for our National parties to take up the baton in Northern Ireland. I know the UUP/Conservative alliance at the last General Election was not a resounding success (more to do with the UUP status than Conservative!!), but there is a definite gap in the market for either National party influence, or better yet, brand new Local Political parties that are based on true political idealism, and not based on which religion you were born into.

    I'm an atheist, naturally right of center, well educated, young-ish, complete Euro-Skeptic, passionate about inward investment into Northern Ireland, passionate about high quality bar-raising standards in Education, and promoting self-reliance, not state support. Where do I go?

  2. Natalie, now that they have organised in Northern Ireland, would UKIP not be a good fit?

    As for your point about losing sight, I don't buy that the people of Northern Ireland are sick and tired of Green/Orange politics. After this election the four biggest parties will still be identified along those lines by choice and the majority of the voting public are happy to be identified as Nationalist/Unionist.

    I agree that voters are tired of the mainstream parties to an extent but I don't think there are swathes of people ready to abandon them for a new cross community (for that is what they would have to be) grouping moulded on right of centre politics. Are the Alliance really so far away from thousands of voters who would vote but just haven't found someone far enough on the right to vote for?

    I'm sure there are some, but not enough to form any serious grouping or at least not for a generation or 2.

  3. And that is the true shame of it all. Yes UKIP will be fulfilling most of my political needs and that's where I will be concentrating my efforts for a while...but would be nice to have a party like UKIP that is born and bred for Northern Ireland too. I've had conversations with a few people (cross community and from left/right of center) who are disaffected by the Big 4 (5 if you cound Alliance!), there are definitely people out there looking for a new way, but I fear you are right, they are still a generation away from fruition!

  4. It may be true that there is disaffection out there - after all, we have conflict parties for a post-conflict situation - but whether it is or isn't, the one thing which won't fix it is mere talk.

    The best hope for a real alternative, arguably, came from Platform for Change. But for all its talk, it still came across as an organisation fundamentally unwilling to do the hard work to get people elected - the trudging around the doors, the lobbying on planning applications, yes even the odd DLA appeal. The electorate will not respond to people who seem to think they are above all that.

    To that end, I wish you every success, Ed (and indeed Natalie). As a broadly pro-EU-just-right-of-centre-social-liberal I don't agree with either of you on many things, but at least you are out there offering something to the electorate and prepared to work hard. In a fair world with a genuinely disaffected electorate, that attitude would be rewarded...

  5. Ian, whilst we may disagree on many things the distance between those differences is not often too great. I'm fiercely pro Europe and undoubtedly left of centre but I'm not so far over to believe that all good ideas for governance sit on one side. As I've said on this blog, one of the biggest mistakes that Labour have yet to realise is that they blew a golden opportunity to reform welfare by attacking the only Tory that really understands the issue.

    There are certain issues where a strong and immovable position is valid and justified but I don't think that's very often the case when it comes to providing fair governance. More often than not, moderation and realism are what's best for the people.

    I digress.

    Your point about platform for change is fair and accurate. It's no good to go halfway. Without action, what makes platform for change any different than a group of people sitting in a pub discussing how they would do things differently?

  6. 'Whilst I disagree with you old chap'
    'And me you old bean'
    'Another brandy?'
    'Why not'