The RHI scandal is a reminder of the false promise of One Unionist Party

Unionist unity: Tom Elliott at the launch of his Westminster campaign in 2015 with DUP leader Arlene Foster, left, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, right, and in the background, Fred Parkinson and Lord Morrow MLA.  Photo by Andrew Paton/Presseye.com
Unionist unity: Tom Elliott at the launch of his Westminster campaign in 2015 with DUP leader Arlene Foster, left, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, right, and in the background, Fred Parkinson and Lord Morrow MLA. Photo by Andrew Paton/Presseye.com

Red Sky, NAMA, the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, and public funds channeled to organisations led by paramilitaries.

Cancer waiting lists at their worst level in Northern Ireland’s history. GP services in crisis. Budgets missing in action.

Richard Price, who was an Ulster Unionist candidate in 2011

Richard Price, who was an Ulster Unionist candidate in 2011

You could be forgiven for thinking voter disillusionment with Northern Ireland’s system of governance couldn’t get much worse. However, it easily could.

As an example, one sure way to dig ourselves into a deeper political hole would be if the old refrain for “One Unionist Party” was ever taken up in earnest.

“Why can you lot not stop fighting each other and get together”. As an election time door-knocker of yore, it’s a comment I’m well used to hearing. Sometimes made in weary resignation. Other times less diplomatically.

Whichever way it was said, it could usually be taken to mean that the household member expressing the view would not be supporting today’s “other unionist party”, the Ulster Unionists, with their first preference.

One can see the logic of the call. To a point. Wouldn’t One Unionist Party achieve more elected members, and therefore wage a stronger battle against nationalist and republican demands inimical to unionist interests?

The problem is, One Unionist Party, if such a thing were even possible or desirable, would likely fail to deliver that objective, and merely lead to greater voter disenchantment and further corrosion of public trust in Northern Ireland’s governance system. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal reminds of the need to always resist the One Unionist Party call.

Why wouldn’t One Unionist Party bring about a surge in power for unionism? I can’t predict with confidence that in its early phase it would not produce vote management efficiencies. However, without the galvanising force of competition, any One Unionist Party would quickly grow flabby and complacent.

Secure in the knowledge it had a guaranteed and unchallenged vote base at every election it would be immune to the inconvenience of being challenged on performance. It would be free to engage in petty nepotism and abuse of power without fear of major electoral penalty. Some might say the dominant position of the DUP within unionism already gives a taste of that trend to complacency.

The already strong levels of cynicism by the average voter towards power-wielding politicians would grow further towards antipathy. Any short-term boost in vote management from a One Unionist Party would soon be hit by the hangover of disillusion and abstention.

This is not to mention the likely negating impact of a consequent nationalist/republican unity in response, as well as the pre-existing safety mechanisms built in to Stormont’s fabric. Who now has not heard of the petition of concern? The pressing need for One Unionist Party is not nearly as acute as some may believe.

More than the counting of ballot papers however, great principles are at stake from the prospect of One Unionist Party. Scrutiny. Accountability. Choice. Democracy.

Mike Nesbitt’s welcome decision to take the Ulster Unionist Party into Opposition was right on its own terms. Those of bringing further normalisation to Northern Ireland politics, and creating the eventual prospect of voters being able to vote parties in and out of Government. His decision is vindicated by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

Picture a situation in which there was no other unionist party to question Arlene Foster’s handling of her department? Imagine a scenario where the One Unionist Party had a carte blanche to squander public funds any way it chose without ever facing the prospect of electoral consequence.

Some might say such a vision of a political party assuming it had a tribal entitlement to power sounds more Bulawayo than Belfast. However that would be a disservice to the relative competitiveness of elections in southern Zimbabwe.

In summary, choice can set us free from our current governing malaise. We don’t have to settle for less. This is not as good as it gets.

Keen competition between unionist parties at election times empowers us, the voter. To choose competence. Choose vision. Or simply choose not to reward failure.

At the next Stormont election, ahead of vote-casting, it would be worth unionist voters remembering RHI and other scandals, and remembering the value of having different unionist parties to vote for. Choice means not having to settle for more the same. Choice frees us from worse. Choice provides hope of better.

• Richard Price was an Ulster Unionist Party candidate in 2011