Sam McBride: U-turning even before he has taken over could be devastating for Steve Aiken
There has been an ideological faultline which arguably has existed since the founding of Northern Ireland in 1921 but which has become more pronounced over recent decades as unionism’s majority has shrunk.
On one side of that line sit those unionists who believe that Northern Ireland’s place within the Union is best protected by consistently returning the greatest number of unionist politicians in each election.
To them, the mantra of ‘united we stand, divided we fall’ trumps arguments about economics, social issues or personalities.
The election of unionists is paramount, regardless of their policies on any other issue.
They fear that if unionism’s energy is expended in an internal battle then it will lead to nationalists being elected and ultimately to a border poll where there is the possibility of a united Ireland.
On the other side of the ideological faultline sits unionists who believe that Northern Ireland’s best chance of being secure within the Union is for it to become more like England, Scotland and Wales.
That involves ‘normal’ political debate about issues on a left-right basis and real competition among those who support the continuance of the Union as a given but want to change society in line with wider political aspirations whether on taxation, education or whether to build new roads.
Out of that, they hope to show that far from being a ‘failed state’ as republicans have always claimed, Northern Ireland can work.
Into that fundamental debate strode Steve Aiken last Saturday in the pages of this newspaper.
In an interview with the News Letter last Friday, the incoming Ulster Unionist leader set out an unambiguous position which seemed bold, but calculated.
When asked if the UUP would stand aside for the DUP in some seats, Mr Aiken bluntly and emphatically said: “No. We’re not standing aside. We’re going to fight all 18 constituencies.” There was an immediate and predictable backlash from the DUP, whose deputy leader and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds would be most vulnerable if the UUP was to contest every seat.
Arlene Foster accused him of doing something which would “hand seats to Sinn Féin”.
Mr Aiken was clear and unapologetic about his stance even if it meant Mr Dodds losing his seat. He told the News Letter that the DUP has been undermining the Union and therefore it was natural that his party would not stand aside in favour of such a party.
He said that “the DUP, the supposed supporters of the Union, have been one of the biggest detractors from it”.
Pressure came on Mr Aiken from various sources – including one sitting UUP councillor, Frazer Agnew – and the Grand Master of the Orange Order in Belfast, Spencer Beattie, to reverse his position.
However, while privately there was unhappiness within sections of the UUP, the party’s small band of big beasts were publicly restrained about expressing their unease.
But, appearing on The View on Thursday night, Mr Aiken came unstuck. Although it was obvious that the pressure for a pact would be the main line of questioning, the incoming UUP leader appeared unclear about his policy.
Initially said “we’re committed to running candidates everywhere”.
But within moments, when pressed by presenter Mark Carruthers, he was refusing to say whether that would mean standing in all 18 seats.
In an interview which at points defied logical analysis, Mr Aiken suggested that he had been surprised at Sinn Féin’s century-old policy of abstentionism.
When asked to explain why he had changed his stance on North Belfast, he said: “One of the things that has changed, of course, is that yesterday Sinn Féin have decided to put forward a candidate who’s not even going to stand in Westminster.”
In passing, later in the interview, he said that there had been threats made to UUP staff, but he did not indicate that his apparent change of position was based on that development.
There are UUP members unhappy at the position articulated by Mr Aiken. But they have little reason for complaint in that he is being handed the leadership of their party without a contest and any one of them could have challenged him for the post.
Although Mr Aiken is a former commander of a Royal Navy nuclear submarine, he is still new to politics, having first been elected to any political post when he entered the Assembly as an MLA just three-and-a-half years ago.
However, the South Antrim MLA has always been clear that he is on the liberal wing of the party.
The UUP knew that when not a single other party member put their name forward to be leader. Yet some of those people who chose not to contest the leadership appear shocked that a liberal unionist has said something which is consistent with his ideology.
In remarkable circumstances, Mr Aiken now faces what may be the defining moment for his leadership – before he has even taken over as leader.
If Mr Aiken presses ahead with standing in every constituency, he can expect to face the wrath of many unionists – including the Orange Order, members of his own party and UUP voters.
However, if he reverses a policy which he set out with such conviction and instead adopts a position with which he does not agree, Mr Aiken will not only appear weak, but also incompetent.
Over recent years, several senior DUP figures have privately said that they believe there is a need for a distinctively liberal unionist party – a recognition that the DUP, no matter how successful, will never be able to mop up all of the votes lost by the UUP, and something they believe would free the DUP to pursue policies without fear of being outflanked by the UUP from both left and right.
Yet if it is ultimately in unionism’s – and even the DUP’s – interest to have such a party, the DUP’s actions have undermined that, by robustly denouncing UUP leaders, and the short-lived NI21, who have struck out in a liberal direction.
Within the DUP, there are people who realise that whereas in days gone past there was an expectation from both the UUP and DUP that anyone who was pro-Union would vote for a unionist regardless of their other policies, the world is changing.
Young people in particular are more enthused by issues – anything from environmentalism to gay rights to the question of abortion – than by party or constitutional politics.
The idea that a gay unionist who is pro-choice, anti-Brexit and believes that the world is facing a climate emergency should automatically vote for a DUP candidate simply because they are unionist is as out of date as the idea that an opponent of same-sex marriage who is pro-life, pro-Brexit and opposes green taxes should vote for a UUP candidate simply because they are a unionist.
Part of the explanation for the growth of the Alliance and Green Party vote in recent elections is that some voters who are constitutionally unionist – in that they would vote for the Union in any border poll – have felt disrespected by the mindset behind pacts which is implicitly that they should simply do their duty and vote for whoever their political leaders have decided is ‘their’ candidate.
There is therefore a strategic logic to Mr Aiken’s attempt to differentiate the UUP from its larger rival even if in the short term it costs unionism in a marginal seat.
But by appearing unprepared to face down what was always going to be vocal – and heartfelt – opposition to anything which could see Sinn Féin benefit, he has undermined his leadership before it has even begun.