Election 2017: Connal Parr says unionists have options, if only they can believe it

UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt greets SDLP Party Leader Colm Eastwood as he  speaks at the Ulster Unionist conference in 2016. If the UUP and SDLP  and possibly Alliance  could work together, there could be some viable coalition which would replace the inept corruption of the two largest parties, says Connal Parr. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt greets SDLP Party Leader Colm Eastwood as he speaks at the Ulster Unionist conference in 2016. If the UUP and SDLP  and possibly Alliance  could work together, there could be some viable coalition which would replace the inept corruption of the two largest parties, says Connal Parr. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin needed, and certainly fed off, one another during the Troubles.

Both were on the outside of the original power-sharing attempt in 1974, and both would eventually overtake the moderates who negotiated that Agreement and its rebooted 1998 successor.

Dr Connal Parr, a research fellow at Northumbria University

Dr Connal Parr, a research fellow at Northumbria University

However, and here’s the rub: voting DUP actually means getting more Sinn Féin.

The relationship between the parties is by now symbiotic. Each draws strength from their battles with one another. Each is invested with the power to prop up – or collapse – each other’s position.

And now that Secretary of State James Brokenshire has quashed any prospect of a return to direct rule, the larger parties who triumph in this election will again have to strike a deal.

Here’s where Mike Nesbitt’s recent intervention, urging unionists to transfer to the Social Democratic and Labour Party, comes into play.

The front cover of the 12-page 2017 election pull-out that was free in Thursday's News Letter. The supplement of cartoon, analysis, full list of candidates and 18 constituency profiles was only available to paying readers of the print edition of the newspaper for more than 24 hours before being put online

The front cover of the 12-page 2017 election pull-out that was free in Thursday's News Letter. The supplement of cartoon, analysis, full list of candidates and 18 constituency profiles was only available to paying readers of the print edition of the newspaper for more than 24 hours before being put online

Nesbitt did not advise transferring to Sinn Fein; he suggested transferring to a moderate, constitutional party which from its very foundation has condemned violence.

Its current, slightly immature leader lacks the political skills of John Hume (as indeed have all SDLP leaders since), but there is no doubting the party’s integrity and desire to make Northern Ireland function.

Therefore, on the off-chance the UUP and SDLP – and possibly Alliance – could work together, there could be some viable coalition which would replace the inept corruption of the two largest parties.

As has been pointed out, the Ulster Unionists are not running enough candidates to overtake the DUP. Nesbitt knows this and thought it worth taking a hammer to the ugly concrete of Northern Irish political architecture anyway. To some extent the people are damned by their political structures, but he did it probably because he thought it was the right thing to do.

It’s called leadership and the DUP wouldn’t know it if it hit them over the head with an extra-large bag of specially-procured wood pellets.

The problem for Nesbitt is that the DUP strategy, like sectarianism itself, works.

It has always worked, which is why senior DUP figures are comfortable making jokes in public about the astronomical RHI waste.

Based on fear and zero-sum one-upmanship, it ironically exaggerates Sinn Féin as unstoppable, all-powerful, all-singing, all-dancing overlords. So: ‘Vote for the DUP because we are the only ones who could possibly stop them.’

Yet the DUP’s negotiating abilities were found wanting with the Stormont House Agreement, and Nesbitt also outflanked them on the issue of the proposed ‘peace centre’ at the Maze, forcing Peter Robinson into an embarrassing U-turn in August 2013.

It would be unfair to tar all DUP supporters and politicians with the same brush.

The party used to be a peculiar alliance between urban working class loyalists and conservative evangelicals.

The former has fragmented with many considering their options with, amongst others, the PUP and TUV. The DUP now attracts younger careerists on the make, the kind of person who sang ‘Arlene’s on Fire’ as Foster danced about in the same hotel where a fireball once passed through the room in one of the Provisional IRA’s most horrific attacks.

Finally, with the dangers of a marginalised underclass, it is essential not just for unionists but for all that a loyalist working class constituency is represented at Stormont, and there is none more suitable than the Progressive Unionist Party candidates for North and East Belfast.

If only they can believe it, unionists have options.

• Connal Parr is a research fellow at Northumbria University