Sam McBride: As UUP faces another defining decision, there is little real choice

The next Ulster Unionist leader will be announced in less than a month. But will there even be a contest?
The next Ulster Unionist leader will be announced in less than a month. But will there even be a contest?
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Buried amidst the potentially momentous shifts in the Brexit negotiations, this week Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann took a significant decision.

His party is now so shrunken and battered that what Mr Swann said was well down the news agenda. Where even six or seven years ago the UUP was regularly in the headlines for what it thought was the wrong reasons – internal spats, walkouts and arguments about which direction it should take – the party now struggles to be heard at all.

Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that ‘there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ certainly applies to politics – if not on every occasion, certainly over time.

Politics is essentially a battle of ideas and it is difficult to win that battle if one’s voice cannot even be heard.

On Thursday night, Mr Swann announced that he had decided to bring forward his resignation from the Ulster Unionist leadership.

In a brief statement, he said that having originally announced last month that he intended to step down as leader next February, he was now bringing that forward to November 9 “after consultation with family and close colleagues”.

With the UUP having been on a near-continuous downward drift for two decades and now holding just 10 of the 90 Assembly seats, many people will assume that this contest has little wider relevance.

But if the party does not at this juncture arrest its decline, the implications could travel beyond the UUP. There is a significant segment of unionism which for myriad reasons will never vote DUP.

Whereas the DUP had in the latter years of Ian Paisley’s leadership and then under Peter Robinson been reaching out to become a broader church, the sense is that the party is now retreating somewhat from that stance, with some of its most moderate and capable figures such as Richard Bullick, Simon Hamilton and Alastair Ross walking away.

As my colleague Ben Lowry has observed, it is illustrative of the limits of the DUP’s appeal that such a large minority of unionist voters still vote for the UUP – more than 100,000 in the last Assembly election – when the party is at such a low ebb.

That in itself demonstrates the problem for unionism if the UUP now moves towards rapid implosion – those people will not vote for the DUP and in many cases are not attracted to the TUV so will, in all likelihood, be lost to the unionist column, regardless of whether they stay at home or vote for a party such as Alliance. 
That in itself will not make a united Ireland more likely. Regardless of how people vote in an election, a shift from the UUP to Alliance or to not voting at all is unlikely to be a significant benefit to republicans in how people vote in any border poll.

But that could hasten the calling of a plebiscite on the border. Although the Secretary of State retains a discretionary power to call a referendum on a united Ireland at any point, the obligation on him in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is woolly and based on whether, in his opinion, the referendum could be won by republicans.

One way of gauging that is likely to be opinion polling, although the reputation of pollsters has been battered in recent years.

But another criteria – and especially if the Secretary of State of the day was looking for reasons to justify such a decision – could be the vote for unionist parties in an election.

The last Assembly election saw unionism lose its Stormont majority for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland, yet there has been little evidence of unionism responding to that setback by radically altering its path.

There is some justification in Mr Swann’s complaint that he was seen as a traditionalist unionist because he is an Orangeman and a Presbyterian from North Antrim when actually his policy positions have been far more nuanced.

Clearly annoyed that he felt many in the media had framed him as a traditionalist leader despite his actions, such as addressing LGBT events, Mr Swann exuded a degree of exasperation when he was interviewed by the BBC’s Enda McClafferty last week.

But while that frustration is understandable, it is in part an almost inevitable consequence of his party’s decline. A smaller party will always have to work doubly hard to be heard because its mandate is less demanding of airtime or column inches. That problem will follow his successor.

Mr Swann’s decision this week has the immediate impact of dramatically shortening the length of time which the party will have to debate its future.

In less than a month the new leader will be in post – and perhaps find themselves already in the middle of a General Election campaign.

The move to make a rapid decision about the leadership puts pressure on the tiny number of potential candidates – because the party has already tried most of those who on paper have the credentials for the job – to decide whether they want to be leader.

Yesterday one of those talked about as an outside bet for a return to the leadership, Mike Nesbitt, said that he would not be standing, revealing that he had been diagnosed with heart disease in 2015 and believed that “the stresses of leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party are beyond me at present”.

But even if he is not back as leader, Mr Nesbitt will have some influence in the party’s future shape because it was under his leadership that the other two potential challengers, both former military men, were attracted to the UUP – a not inconsiderable feat, given that the DUP was and is entirely dominant and therefore offers more attractive career prospects.

Thus far, only South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken has put himself forward. The Assembly chief whip is frequently trusted by the party to represent it in tricky media interviews although he has not always emerged unscathed.

During an interview with Stephen Nolan ahead of the 2017 Assembly election, the son of a trade unionist who once commanded a nuclear submarine confidently predicted that the UUP would be “the largest unionist party...I think we’re going to have more seats than Sinn Féin; I think Sinn Féin have real problems out there”.

In fact, Sinn Féin saw its vote surge while the UUP’s vote dropped to a record low.

The other potential contender is former Royal Irish Regiment officer Doug Beattie – someone who left school without any qualifications but who is more articulate and more skilled at debate than most MLAs.

Although there are individual issues – such as on legacy – where both men have been to the right of the DUP, they are overwhelmingly on the UUP’s liberal wing.

That in itself presents this problem: If the UUP is to decide to move in a decisively more liberal direction to the DUP – a position which even some senior DUP figures privately say would benefit unionism by providing more choice to voters – it needs to consciously take that decision and for its members to realise what is happening.

As it is, with only one candidate declared, there may not even be a contest and if one is held it will now be brief.

But aside from the policy argument for the UUP having a brutally honest debate about its future, for a party struggling to be heard, deciding on a coronation would in itself be passing up an opportunity to present its ideas to the shrinking group of people who will listen.