Stay-at-home unionists want choice, not a merger

AT times Tom Elliott seems to have more in common with Basil McCrea, his rival for the Ulster Unionist Party leadership, than with some of his own supporters.

Perhaps this is inevitable because, as the favourite, Elliott actually has more supporters than McCrea.

Most of the party establishment and most of the MLAs are with him, so his campaign reflects the diversity of opinion which has been such a problem for the UUP in the past.

Take last week, when Elliott came out all guns blazing against the idea of one big unionist party or too close a co-operation with the DUP.

"There will certainly not be any single unionist party under my leadership," he said, adding that he did not expect to see it in his lifetime.

"All that would do is polarise the nationalist/republican vote and put unionist voters off. What I want to see is better co-operation if that's possible," he added, broadly reflecting the views of gene pool unionists, like Norman Baxter, who have written in the News Letter's 2021 Union series.

Elliott also wanted to abandon UCUNF, which belly flopped in the Westminster election, but at the same time maintain a link with the Tories.

He didn't spell it out but, in practice, it seemed to mean that they wouldn't stand in Northern Ireland but would instead support UUP candidates.

What the UUP would do in return wasn't spelt out.

None of this is a million miles away from McCrea's stated position, though McCrea gives the impression of being a little cooler, if that were possible, on the DUP.

Like Elliott, McCrea argues that aligning the UUP too closely with the DUP risks being seen by nationalists as sectarian and consolidating their votes around Sinn Fein, as happened when a unity candidate was fielded in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

It was also unlikely to prove attractive to the growing number of unionists who don't turn out to vote.

Elliott's campaign seemed clear – an independently minded UUP ploughing its own furrow, maybe co-operating with the DUP in a limited way, maybe not.

Then Fred Cobain, the UUP chief whip at Stormont, broke cover with a threat to team up with the DUP and ditch the Tories altogether if the Conservative-led government wouldn't change the rules on choosing the First Minister.

"If the Conservative Party reneges on its commitments, we may be forced into a position of having to work with the DUP in some sort of electoral arrangement to ensure the integrity of the Belfast Agreement," Cobain said.

Cobain was referring to a change made in the Belfast Agreement when the DUP and Sinn Fein re-negotiated it at St Andrews.

Under the original Belfast, or Good Friday, agreement, the largest "designation" (that is unionist, nationalist or others) picked the frst minister and the second largest selected the deputy first minister.

The two posts carried equal authority, despite the different titles. St Andrews changed this so that the biggest single party now supplies the first minister.

The DUP and Sinn Fein saw this as a way of finishing off the UUP and the SDLP. Within unionism, the message to voters was, vote DUP to keep Sinn Fein from being First Minister. Within nationalism the message was that a vote for the SDLP was a vote for a DUP First Minister.

If he can't get this changed, Cobain wants to get round it by having the DUP and UUP treated as a single party, hopefully the biggest party, at Stormont.

Any such arrangement would have to be at least as comprehensive as UCUNF.

The DUP and UUP would have to stand on a common manifesto. At Stormont they would need a common leader, a single nominating officer, joint whips and other shared structures. There could be no clear blue water between them; if it didn't look like a merger, their arrangement wouldn't satisfy the rules at Stormont.

This looks like a deep fissure in the Elliott camp, far deeper on the face of it than the fissure between Elliott and McCrea.

The question is whether Cobain's approach would mobilise stay-at-home unionist voters or turn them off.

Are these people opting out at election time because they yearn for one big unionist party, which is bound, in practice, to look pretty much like the DUP?

That seems unlikely because they were already invited to vote DUP to keep Sinn Fein in second place in the European election and still didn't care enough to vote.

The more likely option is that they are turning off politics because they would like more choice in terms of policy.

Judging by their pitches so far, Elliott and McCrea both want to offer voters choice. Perhaps they should be talking.