Alex Kane: Opportunities for the UUP, but dangers as well

As the UUP is about to discover, sudden and unexpected opportunities can be a mixed blessing for a political party with a new leader who seems to be making the right kind of waves.

Monday, 31st May 2021, 1:00 pm
Updated Monday, 31st May 2021, 2:05 pm

Get carried away by media reports of recovery, adopt an open door approach to defectors and you risk an internal struggle a few months later as the old and new clash. But move too slowly and you risk the ‘moment’ passing, would-be defectors staying where they are and potential new voters losing interest.

Providing a new home for suddenly unhappy DUP representatives may gather a few media headlines, but unless it is done with extraordinary care (ensuring defectors have been nailed down on policy issues; and making it clear there will be no guaranteed free run at the next election – which only annoys existing members who may have been considering a run) it can also lead to new ructions at constituency level.

Jeffrey Donaldson, Arlene Foster and others didn’t just leap to the DUP in January 2004. There was a courtship process lasting for months, discussions about what sort of roles might be on offer and a very clear understanding of what would be expected of them once they joined the party. Peter Robinson and key members of his inner circle were also head-hunting UUP ‘talent’ for at least 18 months, with gentle, yet consistent, reminders of how welcome they would be in the DUP and how much more their opinions and insights would be valued.

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Edwin Poots may well buckle under outside pressure to bring down the Assembly and Executive

In other words, it’s a two-way process. The party accepting political defectors needs to know what talents and electoral support they bring with them; and the defectors need to understand they are under new leadership, rules and management. And there’s another thing the UUP must bear in mind: attracting DUP representatives to the fold (most of whom haven’t raised a peep of concern about DUP policy in their entire lives) may actually put off potential new members and voters.

In a column for the News Letter on May 17 I wrote about the UUP needing to find its feet, along with an unambiguous definition of its role, relevance, purpose and direction: ‘(which) it cannot do if it continues to have its tail wagged by those whose primary motive is retaining it as little more than the poor electoral cousin of broader unionism.’ I wrote that before the sheer scale and nature of the DUP’s implosion had become clear, when it still seemed possible the warring factions would unite, if only in a desperate effort to survive.

But the DUP’s survival as the lead party of unionism cannot be assumed as a given. Indeed, a growing mountain of evidence suggests the exact opposite. And that means huge – and again, unexpected – opportunities for the UUP. It is not too fanciful to suggest the DUP could lose a number of Assembly seats to the UUP, depriving it of its position as the largest party in the Assembly and rendering academic Edwin Poots’ reluctance to be first minister.

All of which means relentless pressure on the UUP in the next few months. The DUP will build its entire strategy on it being the only unionist party (even with its ongoing problems) with a realistic chance of preventing Sinn Fein from taking the first minister position. In a recent News Letter column Peter Robinson raised the spectre of Sinn Fein being able to take the positions of both first minister and justice minister if it became the largest party: so be prepared for that scare to be front and centre for the next few months.

Meanwhile, two other things will happen: pressure will grow for some sort of united unionist electoral vehicle to combat the threat of Sinn Fein success at the next election; and pressure will also grow for collapsing the Executive/Assembly until the protocol has been removed altogether.

The Orange Order, Loyalist Communities Council, sections of younger loyalism (rallying around a new on-the-ground Unionist & Loyalist Unified Coalition) and the TUV are all on that ground. Indeed, Jim Allister has written, ‘There is no point in a Vichy Stormont and no honour in being our own destroyers. Unionism must get serious about defeating the protocol. Play-acting won’t cut it.’

Even though Poots’ instincts are to save the Executive/Assembly I suspect the DUP will buckle under the pressure of relentless opposition from outside forces and take a much more belligerent attitude than he is presently. It also seems likely that elements of loyalism will exert their own kind of pressure: although I have no idea what their end game in all of this is.

So, what does the UUP do? Resist the pressure for pacts (which could lose it votes). Go for pacts (which could lose it votes). Join in full-scale opposition to the protocol (which could deter potential new members and collapse the Assembly). Take a softer line on the protocol (which could cost it votes and resignations). Pin the blame on the DUP for the present crisis (and risk a ferocious intra-unionist battle).

Row in behind the DUP and other elements of unionism/loyalism (and limit the opportunities to win back Alliance votes and attract new members/supporters). Cut a deal with what I’ll call the ‘Donaldson wing’ of the DUP and create their own electoral vehicle (which could offer a realistic chance of emerging as the largest party overall).

As I say, these unexpected, unprepared for opportunities represent a mixed blessing for the UUP. No inevitability of success in whatever choice they make. But no inevitability of failure, either. But one thing is certain: trying to be all things to all unionists/loyalists will end in a final electoral catastrophe for the party.

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Alistair Bushe