David Burnside: After 40 years, now is the time to reform the UUUC

The then Ulster Unionist leader Harry West addressing a United Unionist Council meeting in Belfasts Ulster Hall in March 1978. Picture: Pacemaker
The then Ulster Unionist leader Harry West addressing a United Unionist Council meeting in Belfasts Ulster Hall in March 1978. Picture: Pacemaker

The present pressures, divisions and weaknesses within unionism and the electoral resurgence of Irish republicanism demand the reformation of the United Ulster Unionist Council.

Whilst one should not over exaggerate the crisis within unionism, the recent Assembly election results were not good for unionism as a whole and the cause of unionism against the successful advances of Sinn Fein and Irish republicanism.

We do not face the armed terrorist campaign of the Provisional IRA which we had when the UUUC was founded in the mid ‘70s. However, Ulster still faces a very powerful political threat from Sinn Fein and the terrorist threat is never far below the surface.

Both main unionist leaders made mistakes which damaged unionism and resulted in a poor outcome of the recent Assembly election.

Arlene Foster should have resigned immediately after the RHI scandal became public. The scandal took place under her ministerial responsibility. Whether she was aware of it or not is irrelevant – the crisis happened on her watch.

If politicians are to retain respect they have to accept ministerial responsibility. Arlene has had a very successful career and has much to contribute in the future but being seen to hang on after the RHI scandal has not done her any good.

Our Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt with good intent but without proper consultation within the Ulster Unionist Party said as leader he would personally transfer to the SDLP in East Belfast which left the Ulster Unionist Party open to misinterpretation and misrepresentation from other unionists that we were not going down the unionist ticket for a STV election.

If unionists do not transfer votes to other unionists in PR elections we will lose our overall majority in councils and at Stormont. For Westminster we need a pact in every constituency. We need total unionist co-operation so there is no vote splitting.

The DUP and the UUP I believe should re-establish the United Ulster Unionist Council which would be the flagship, united banner of all unionists in all future elections and in a referendum campaign if a border poll on the Union is ever called by the Secretary of State.

The two main parties should invite all other unionists to join the UUUC including the smaller parties like TUV, UKIP and independent MPs and MLAs like Sylvia Hermon and Claire Sugden.

Nationalists and republicans are exploiting the understandable uncertainty over Brexit in parallel with the Scottish separatists in the SNP in calling for a border poll.

Unionists should not fear a border poll and all the evidence is that a pro-Union majority of certainly in the 60% plus region (I believe it could be as high as 65% because there is always a 10 to 20 percent of the Catholic electorate who are pro Union).

Nevertheless, a border poll in the foreseeable future would create instability.

True unionists should always work for unionist unity. The beauty of reformation of the UUUC is that the DUP and UUP would still retain their legal registered party names, party organisations, constituency and branch associations, financial and membership structure but when it came to voting in elections all candidates in Westminster, Stormont and local councils would stand as United Unionists with a strong and powerful message that all unionist voters should vote right down the ballot paper in PR elections.

The structure of the UUUC under the present representation of the different political parties would mean that the DUP leader would be leader of the UUUC. The soon to be elected Ulster Unionist Party leader would be the deputy leader of the UUUC; and the UUUC could consider having observer representation, for example from the Loyal Orders and interested organisations and individuals from the business and academic communities but they should not have voting rights and sit on the UUUC with observer status.

This week’s Budget has not gone down well within the Conservative Party heartlands in England and the negotiations over Brexit will be challenging, but unionists need to be alert to the possibility that with the weakest and most unpopular leader the Labour Party has had since Michael Foot in the figure of Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May could orchestrate events to go for a General Election as early as this summer or early autumn.

If unionists are not totally united over the next few months and with redrawing of all boundaries in the future our political influence and power base is under serious challenge at Westminster, and Stormont, if it continues in existence, and in the council chambers.

Reformation of the UUUC will strengthen unionism electorally; will take on the challenge of resurgent Irish republicanism whilst respecting the independence of the existing political parties including the two major ones – the DUP and the UUP.

To put it in modern jargon – it is a no brainer and I would appeal to all unionists of all parties and others to get together and plan for reuniting the unionist family as we did in the 1970s with the United Ulster Unionist Council – Ulster Unionists, DUP and Vanguard – in defence of the Union and for the good of the Province.

• David Burnside is a member of the Ulster Unionist Party and is a former MP and MLA for South Antrim. He now works in public affairs in London.