Steve Aiken deserves space as the new Ulster Unionist leader, but his pledge to stand in all 18 seats was hasty

Steve Aiken is not even leader of the Ulster Unionist Party yet but is already embroiled in controversy.

Friday, 1st November 2019, 2:20 am
News Letter editorial

In an interview with this newspaper, he pledged that the UUP would run in all 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland.

It is not hard to see why he wanted to make such a commitment. The Ulster Unionists are in a difficult place, and are losing votes to Alliance.

There are powerful arguments, accepted across most of the unionist spectrum, that unionism is now so weak that it will benefit from a liberal unionist party that reclaims some of those votes lost to the centre ground.

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Mr Aiken wants to make his mark.

He is also perhaps opening an important debate with which unionists need to engage urgently about what unionism is becoming, and whether it is making grave mistakes, such as allying itself to English Brexiteers who have shown contempt for Northern Ireland and placing such a high priority on taking a very conservative line on social questions when unionists overall are split on them.

But liberal unionism can quickly slide into naivete, and foolishly compromise on major issues, to try to woo nationalists.

In that respect, Mr Aiken is to be applauded for several things that he stated in his interview: that the party will oppose the Stormont House legacy structures which could destroy the reputation of heroic state forces; that it will oppose a sectarian Irish language act; and that it will allow a conscience vote on matters such as abortion.

But he perhaps should have consulted more before his 18 seat pledge. It is ultimately a UUP matter where they stand, but it will be embarrassing for Mr Aiken if he has to retreat.

This paper is mostly neutral between unionist candidates, but our advice on election day in North Belfast will be clear.

That Nigel Dodds is a key voice at Westminster, and that it would be a major setback for unionism if he was to lose to the Sinn Fein candidate John Finucane, something republicans well know, hence their determination to take the seat.