Consulting grassroots might be best way for UUP leader to begin

Morning View
Morning View

Robin Swann seems set to be the next leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

We wish him luck in what is one of the most difficult jobs in British politics.

The Ulster Unionists were central to the founding of the state. For 80 years the party dominated politics in Northern Ireland. Even after the Troubles erupted at the end of the 1960s, it saw off, for more than three decades, the major political challenge posed by Ian Paisley.

But over the many decades post 1921 the pre-eminent position of the UUP, as it came to be known (having for much of its time merely been referred to as the Unionist Party), made serious mistakes that were rooted in complacency.

While the increasingly accepted narrative of Stormont having been an apartheid state, spread to justify terrorism, is nonsense, no serious commentator would deny that the governments made political mistakes, particularly in the postwar years as anger was brewing in nationalist communities.

The UUP also contributed to a time of unionist drift in the years running up to the Anglo Irish Agreement.

When David Trimble signed the Belfast Agreement in 1998 the DUP was briefly outwitted but within a decade it had surpassed the Ulster Unionist Party, which has never recovered. Tony Blair’s refusal to get tough with acts of IRA bad faith and its tardiness in decommissioning destroyed Mr Trimble

It is important to remember, however, that the UUP still has almost one third of the overall unionist vote. It is a long way from being finished off entirely.

An interesting aspect of the reaction to this election is that few people in unionism are seeking a single party, even if a demand for greater co-operation is widespread. But even that is a fraught concept among liberals in the UUP.

Mr Swann would be best to begin his leadership by embarking on a long period of listening and consultation with the unionist grassroots of all parties and none as the community absorbs the wider implications of a rampant Sinn Fein.