WHEN it comes to the travails of the UUP, Claudius had it about right: ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’ For instance, why didn’t Basil McCrea and John McCallister resist the temptation to do a turn on the Nolan Show last Thursday, particularly when both are experienced enough to know that their comments on the issue of a Sinn Fein first minister would be turned into a ‘you-versus-your-leader’ situation? Is that what they hoped for?
Let’s be honest, neither of them was invited on in the expectation that they would support Tom Elliott. It’s precisely because it was known they would take a contrary position that they were lined up for interview. And even though I found it difficult to disagree with David McNarry’s response to them, the fact of the matter is that his contribution merely added to the impression that this was what American pundits refer to as ‘bitch-slappin’ talk show meltdown’.
One is a former chief whip; one a former leadership contender; and the other is presently the deputy leader. All are senior figures, all are candidates and all are breaking the rules and causing yet more existing and potential voters to delete the UUP from their list of options.
All political parties are coalitions: that’s the nature of the beast. There will always be a range of opinions and nuance, which is why parties have a whip system and control structures – to prevent this sort of outburst on radio or television. All of these guys should have known better. And they all have better things to do with their time: like trying to win back the second seats that there used to be in Strangford and Lagan Valley; and holding on to a South Down seat which has been hit by boundary changes.
Anyway, all of them were wrong, because it led to yet more negative coverage for the UUP: something it could have done without on the same day that the Brian Crowe story broke (and my thoughts are with his family: for while the media circus rolls on they have to live with the consequences for ever) and while Michael McGimpsey was being attacked from all sides (admittedly for what struck me as a bizarrely ill-judged and ill-timed decision). It also led to questions from phone-in callers and commentators about the apparent culture of indiscipline at the heart of the UUP. Yet that culture is due, not to a lack of rules, but to a non-implementation of those rules that the party does have. Here are extracts from two key standing orders:
‘All members of the Ulster Unionist Party, elected representatives, their personal staff, party employees and representative bodies shall be bound by the guidelines and limitations set out in this standing order (relating to UUP communications, public relations or media contact); and any breach shall be regarded as a disciplinary offence, penalties for which are outlined in the executive standing order on discipline or in their contract of employment.’ (Standing order on communications)
‘By joining or annually renewing their membership, members – in an individual capacity – agree to be bound by the Ulster Unionist Party rules, association rules and executive committee standing orders... The disciplinary committee will be empowered to hand down any of the following; singly or in combination: A fine, warning, suspension, a ‘not in good standing’ ruling; or expulsion.’ (Standing order on discipline)
I was one of the team that wrote those standing orders and both were passed unanimously by the UUP’s executive. They were passed because the grassroots members and campaign foot-soldiers wanted discipline. They wanted structures which would bring control and consistency. It’s fine to talk about internal democracy and ‘broad churches’, but when the democracy is being abused (as it was and is) and when factionalism is being nurtured, then a line has to be drawn. And once that line is drawn, it is essential that it is toed.
Political parties are voluntary organisations, but membership brings with it a commitment to be bound by the rules and a willingness to accept the majority verdict of your fellow members and colleagues.
Could you imagine any other party – with the possible exception of the Monster Raving Loonies – which would allow candidates to do what was done on Thursday? Could you imagine any other party which would allow its candidates and elected representatives to blissfully and wilfully ignore standing orders? Could you imagine Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson undermining Peter Robinson in this fashion and then, in turn, being attacked by Edwin Poots. Of course it wouldn’t happen: not because every single DUP MLA agrees with every other DUP MLA, but because they know that the consequences of such action would be immediate and brutal.
Tom Elliott has powers – which are actually fairly draconian – and he should not be afraid to deploy them. Indeed, I suspect that the grassroots response to such a deployment would be loud and positive. They are sick to death of serial disloyalty and the blowing of personal trumpets. All most of them want to do is increase the UUP’s overall vote and number of seats and prepare the ground for the winning back of seats at Westminster: a task made enormously difficult when they are greeted on the doorstep by a mixture of indifference, derision and updates on the latest outburst of division.
This is a crucial election for the UUP: so crucial, in fact, that every mistake and setback is capable of being magnified to meltdown proportions. With very few exceptions, there is no assembly seat which can be described as ‘in-the-bag’. Put bluntly, the party cannot afford any more self-inflicted blunders between now and May 5. As a former member and former director of communications, my advice to all UUP candidates is simple: stay close to the door-to-door campaign trail and well away from the microphones and cameras. This election isn’t just about the personal ambitions and egos of a few people: it’s about the long-term survival of the UUP itself.