LAST week I was tweeted a question: “In your opinion Alex, if Trimble had taken a step or leap instead of looking over his shoulder at the DUP, how would the UUP be today?”
Twitter doesn’t make provision for long answers so I replied: “Trimble, oddly, managed to be brave and overly cautious at the same time. But divisions over the GFA ran too deep and too wide.” The original question was one that has kept me thinking, though, so here’s a longer, more considered response to it: a response which may explain the ongoing problems for the UUP.
David Trimble was, from the media’s perspective, the ‘surprise’ winner of the 1995 leadership race to succeed Jim Molyneaux. Most people (including the British and Irish governments) were calling it for John Taylor, regarded as a safe pair of hands and someone who properly understood the workings, make-up and mood of the UUP. Back then, Trimble was regarded as a sort of right-wing maverick, whose supporters wanted to outflank the DUP and make the UUP a more attractive place for unionist hardliners.
But Trimble was also someone who recognised the fact that unionism had to be more than a purely reactive force; always on the back foot and always struggling to catch up with what others had done. Trimble wanted the UUP to face unpleasant political and electoral realities, even if that meant opening doors to potential negotiations with Sinn Fein and embracing smaller parties linked to loyalist paramilitarism. And Trimble also accepted, from day one of his leadership, that setting out a specific agenda for dialogue and the parameters for all-party agreement had to take priority over Molyneaux’s strategy of trying to keep all sides within the UUP happy.
The UUP has always been a coalition of interests, with maintenance of the Union as the fixed point of its existence. It managed pretty well when it ran Stormont and controlled patronage, politics and political organisation. But once Parliament had been prorogued in March 1972 and the UUP lost all of the trappings of power, the coalition began to disintegrate. In truth, that process of disintegration had begun from the mid-1960s when Terence O’Neill had begun a process of voluntary reform.
When Trimble became leader 23 years later the UUP remained a fractious, easily spooked, easily divided party – albeit a party in name only. Unlike the DUP, Sinn Fein, Alliance and the SDLP, power didn’t lie at the centre so, consequently, the leadership was at the constant mercy of shifting opinions and allegiances within its own grassroots – and constantly wary of what the DUP was up to. Trimble’s response was a brutally calculated one: he made a decision at the start where he wanted to take the party and decided that he would keep going along that path for as long as he kept a majority of the party executive and Ulster Unionist Council with him.
The immediate danger of a strategy like that is that it can only pay dividends if the success it brings outweighs the risks involved. The other danger is this: if your opponents understand your strategy then you can often give them an advantage – and both Sinn Fein and the DUP actually used Trimble’s strategy to their own advantage. Sinn Fein moved very, very slowly and the DUP (along with Trimble’s internal opponents) simply pointed to the fact that there was almost nothing to show for the risks he had taken. But remember this: had Trimble not made that calculation and taken those risks then there wouldn’t now be an Assembly and there wouldn’t have been the opportunity for Sinn Fein and the DUP to reach agreement at St Andrews in 2005 or their subsequent carve-up agreement in May 2007.
Here’s the key difference between the UUP and the DUP and Sinn Fein. Both those parties have very clear, very easily understood answers to the issues of their role, relevance, purpose and direction (RRPD). They know where they want to be and they know what they need to be doing. They understand, too, the need for control from the centre over every aspect of policy and communication. Crucially, this is something both parties have always understood, even when they weren’t much more than bit players back in the 1970s and ‘80s.
The SDLD used to be pretty good at RRPD, too, yet fell apart when they thought the Good Friday Agreement was the fulfilment of John Hume’s ‘agreed Ireland’ dream and then discovered that it wasn’t even close to it! Alliance, meanwhile, just bumbles along. It understands RRPD well enough, even though it seems to aspire to nothing higher than plonking itself between two power blocs and living off the pickings.
The party Mike Nesbitt took over eight months ago has still to provide easily understood answers to RRPD. In fairness to him, he did inherit the problem. Yet three opinion polls since May suggest that his leadership hasn’t made a button of difference to the public’s perception of the party. Friends within the UUP (along with some who aren’t so friendly!) tell me that I’m overly critical. Am I any more critical than the 89 per cent of voters who say that they wouldn’t give the UUP a first preference vote? Am I any more critical than the electors who chose not to return a single UUP MP or reduced their numbers of councillors and MLAs?
In the great scheme of things what I say or think probably doesn’t matter all that much – and wouldn’t matter at all if the UUP was picking up steam again. But I do know this: if voters don’t understand what the role of your party is; what relevance it has to their lives; what purpose it serves; and where it hopes to be in ten years time – then they will be reluctant to vote for you.
Nesbitt’s first big electoral test is the Euro election in June 2014. That gives him a year to sort out the RRPD situation. Nothing else matters. No amount of talk about internal reform or new members matters. If he doesn’t have answers to RRPD – and answers which make sense to voters – then the UUP will be wiped off the electoral map. And that, in my opinion, would be a sad loss for local politics.
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