It is clear that unionists need to have option of voting for a liberal party

News Letter editorial on Monday May 9 2022:

By Editorial
Monday, 9th May 2022, 5:46 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th May 2022, 2:55 am
News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

It became apparent early on Friday that the Ulster Unionist Party was having a difficult election.

A number of prominent figures in the party, including the former leader Mike Nesbitt and the current one Doug Beattie, seemed at risk of losing their seat.

Both men scraped back. Even so, many observers wondered if it was the end of the liberal project within the UUP.

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The UUP has not been a liberal party for long. For most of the last century it was a distinctly conservative party.

It first moved towards a liberal approach under Mike Nesbitt, but he seemed often to face pressure to return to a more traditional set of policies. It has been under Mr Beattie that the party has adopted a more emphatically liberal stance.

This newspaper was neutral in the election between the three main unionist parties, UUP, DUP and TUV.

We were so despite the fact that the UUP has been far more liberal in its stance on some core issues than we would like (above all in its naive comments about ‘more engagement not less’ after meeting two staunch defenders of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Simon Coveney and Maroš Šefčovič).

Yet the UUP needs to be free to forge its own liberal path.

Far from their liberal project being over, it has easily survived this election. The party won almost 100,000 votes, more than it has won in some other Stormont contests over the last decade. It is appealing to large minority of voters – one in eight –who are vital at a time when each unionist vote counts.

That longstanding UUP liberal politician, Dr Chris McGimpsey, once wrote on these pages that a single unionist party would merely gift 50,000 votes to the Alliance Party.

That a core of unionist voters refuse in election after election to transfer their allegiances to either Alliance or DUP suggests that their determination to vote for a unionist party might disappear in the absence of a liberal option.

The future for unionism will likely involve co-operation between unionist factions on core issues, and a united response to perils such as the protocol, but not necessarily a single party.

More commentary:

• Owen Polley: Unionists have an issue with sectarian SF, not with nationalism

• Ben Lowry: Unionism now faces a considerable challenge in how to go forward