Ben Lowry: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism

The future shape of unionist politics in Northern Ireland has been clarified by yesterday’s DUP result.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 15th May 2021, 1:17 pm
Updated Saturday, 15th May 2021, 2:38 pm
Looking left and looking right. The likely next Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie MLA and the new DUP leader Edwin Poots MLA, both pictured at Stormont last week. Mr Beattie is projecting a more liberal unionism, and Mr Poots is widely seen as representing a more traditional unionism. Pics by Kelvin Boyes, PressEye
Looking left and looking right. The likely next Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie MLA and the new DUP leader Edwin Poots MLA, both pictured at Stormont last week. Mr Beattie is projecting a more liberal unionism, and Mr Poots is widely seen as representing a more traditional unionism. Pics by Kelvin Boyes, PressEye

The victory of Edwin Poots means that there is a clear distinction between his party and the Ulster Unionist Party.

Doug Beattie who is almost certain to be the next leader of the UUP, now that he seems unlikely to face a rival for the job, is marking himself out clearly as a liberal unionist.

Mr Poots is a classically conservative unionist, with a Free Presbyterian and traditional DUP background.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had a very strong claim to be DUP leader, as its longest standing MP and with deep experience of both Stormont and Westminster, and indeed of the full spectrum of unionist politics.

But had he changed the mind of two of the DUP electors yesterday, and thus won by 19 votes to 17 as opposed to losing by that margin, it would have presented something of a headache for unionism.

Sir Jeffrey is one of the most moderate figures in the DUP, and there would have been little obvious difference between him and his fellow military veteran Mr Beattie.

It would have raised the prospect once again of a single merged unionist party, which was a popular notion within unionism some years ago but is much less so now.

And that would have been tricky given that Mr Beattie has always been blunt about his dislike of the DUP, and reiterated his refusal to co-operate with them last week.

Also because there is still some resentment within the UUP over Sir Jeffrey’s and Arlene Foster’s defection to the DUP in 2003.

Indeed, there have been so many UUP defections to the DUP over the last two decades that the people who have stuck with the UUP through thick and thin are likely to come from the most liberal and anti DUP wing of the old Ulster Unionist coalition.

The idea of one big, large unionist party has receded in recent years because the rise of Alliance has shown the advantages of having different shades of unionism, including a liberal party.

Such an option makes it less likely that moderates will leave the unionist fold.

There are other perils with a big unionist party, such as that it might become sluggish and complacent, and even in some quarters almost corrupt, having huge influence over governance here.

A dominant party will have lots of patronage, which can lead to self-serving politics.

Unionism instead needs political vehicles that have space for young politicians who are committed to maintaining the Union.

It would also be hard for a single party to be either decisively liberal or decisively conservative.

If, for example, a single party was to get too radical on matters such as abortion or same sex relations, it would alienate a large swathe of people who are traditional on such matters.

If it got too conservative on those topics, it would alienate a growing number of unionists who are liberal on such issues.

Critics of unionism often roll their eyes at old fashioned attitudes to moral questions, and urge unionists to modernise, but it is completely unrealistic to expect such traditional perspectives to vanish, when they are so deeply rooted in Northern Ireland society.

Those values are as prevalent in nationalism as in unionism yet, oddly, there has been little complaint about the way Sinn Fein and the SDLP have both jettisoned Catholic conservatism.

But while there is logic to a liberal unionist party under Doug Beattie and a more conservative one under Edwin Poots, nothing about the coming arrangements and relationships within unionism is going to be easy.

I phoned round people in the DUP last night and am well aware that there is a reforming faction that is dismayed at the prospect of Mr Poots being in charge.

“This is our Jeremy Corbyn moment,” said one.

It will not be plain sailing for Mr Beattie as UUP leader either.

He seemed to suggest on radio this week that he would allow a free vote on matters such as abortion but not on gay issues.

When in 2015 the Alliance Party forced its elected politicians to support same sex marriage, I thought it was an unreasonable demand. It is hardly extreme for someone to support the right of same sex couples to live happy and fulfilled lives but also to believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Yet internal dissent in Alliance over this strict policy, such as from Trevor Lunn MLA, seemed to vanish after a while.

However, it would be extraordinary if the Ulster Unionist Party was also to bar internal opposition on matters of conscience, such as towards same sex marriage.

How to proceed on the thorny matter of on social and cultural questions is on only one of the challenges facing unionism.

The much greater challenge pertains to matters relating to the Union, above all the Irish Sea border.

With Mr Beattie ruling out a UUP boycott of North-South arrangements in retaliation for the damage done by the NI Protocol to East-West, and with Mr Poots declining in the DUP leadership race to commit to such a tough stance on it, then we might have to accept that the new border is here to stay.

The debate around the protocol has changed recently, with even the previously uncompromising Irish minister Simon Coveney appearing this week to say that the EU will have to compromise.

But if Dublin, London and Brussels all sense that unionist opposition to the new trade barrier is muted, then we can expect only minor modifications at best.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor

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