Alex Kane: Steve Aiken is a decent man, but not what the Ulster Unionist Party wanted or needed

I like irony. I had a long chat a couple of weeks ago with an old UUP friend who was complaining about a recent interview in which I had said the UUP was still dogging the DUP’s footsteps.

Monday, 10th May 2021, 1:00 pm

I called him yesterday: “So, the DUP has a leadership contest and now the UUP is having one.” There was a pause: “Fair enough, Alex, can we talk about Sherlock Holmes instead?”

The news about Steve Aiken came as no surprise. The sheer volume of internal complaints about him suggested his time was up. I’ll join together two comments I heard yesterday afternoon: ‘His removal was properly conducted, unlike the surgical removal of Arlene Foster or the Sinn Fein purge in Foyle. (But) after hard conversations there wasn’t exactly a chorus suggesting he hang on any longer.’

The problem with Aiken – although in almost any other walk of life it wouldn’t count as a problem – is that he was much too nice to lead a political party. Particularly one as difficult to lead as the UUP has been since Terence O’Neill’s era. He is a decent man with a brisk, efficient, managerial approach to problems. But that’s not what the UUP needed this last 18 months. And it’s certainly not what party members – who do the hard slog of elections and door-knocking – wanted.

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UUP members viewed Steve Aiken’s media interviews sometimes with quiet despair and occasionally utter disbelief

They wanted someone who would land a few powerful blows on the DUP: and particularly on Arlene Foster. There’s still a section of the party which has never forgiven either her or Donaldson for defecting to the DUP; and that section has been enjoying a feeling of schadenfreude as it read about her travails this past year. Or, as a 75-year-old, Trimble-supporting member of the party texted me when he heard that the DUP had thrown her overboard: ‘Slap it up her. She should have known they would turn on her at some point.’

Members and supporters/voters of a party want to hear the leader do well in interviews. They want to feel buoyed-up and able to punch the air: particularly if they feel the leader they support has acquitted himself well. Aiken’s innate politeness prevented him from having many of those moments. Too often his supporters were just shrugging their shoulders and sighing: mostly in quiet despair, but occasionally in utter disbelief.

Reg Empey stood down as leader after the UCUNF project (the UUP electoral pact with the Conservatives) failed to deliver any seats at the 2010 general election. Tom Elliott lasted 18 months. Mike Nesbitt survived for five years (with some unexpectedly good moments and some horrible moments) but stood down after a terrible Assembly result in 2017. Robin Swann stayed for 30 months. Aiken, who officially resigns this morning at 10am, managed 18 months.

Empey and Nesbitt both took risks to try and give the UUP something which could be described as significantly different from the DUP (as did Trimble before them, of course). Both paid the price: but maybe it was more timing than anything else. The DUP mocked the UCUNF pact, yet cut their own one with the Conservatives a few years later (although they got shafted for their efforts).

In an interview for Brian Rowan’s new book, ‘Political Purgatory’ (which I reviewed here on April 24) Nesbitt noted: “I judged there was insufficient electoral support for my call for a post sectarian election and rather than try to hang on to the leadership and risk undoing five years of effort to unite my party, I resigned before the counts were even complete, so members could focus on the future. Since then, many people have told me I was too early, ahead of my time. Watching the so-called Alliance surge of 2019, I wonder if all I got wrong was the timing.’

Nesbitt makes a fair point. That said, I still think he’s missing a key truth about the UUP: it is not – and hasn’t been so for a long, long time – a single, united party. It is still like a collection of smaller parties and competing interests and prone to taking sides when the leader (even with party officer and governing executive support) takes a stand on an issue. Ironically, the DUP (just led by a former UUP member and likely to be led by another) is experiencing exactly the same difficulties: and may continue to do so if, which seems inevitable, the new leader enjoys the support of just over half of the electoral college.

All of which raises the only question that matters: what does a new leader do to give the UUP the something ‘significantly different’ it needs to attract both media interest and new votes? Maybe a second question: if, for example, the new leader wanted to widen the chasm between his party and the DUP, would a substantial, convincing majority of party members let him? Many recent leaders have fallen at the hurdle represented by that second question.

Crucially, is there someone in the UUP who, if he won the leadership, would not be afraid to make his own case and face down both internal and external opponents. Someone who would say: “This is what I want to do. If you elect me as leader then it is what I will do – so don’t pretend to be surprised afterwards when I start doing it.”

If that person doesn’t exist, then it won’t be long until the party doesn’t, either.

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