For ten years, at least, the UUP has tried to meet “the one”, to help it secure electoral success and greater influence.
Back in 2006, Ulster Unionists persuaded former PUP MLA, David Ervine, to join their Assembly group, in an attempt to gain an extra Executive minister, though the arrangement was thwarted by Stormont’s rules. Then they fought two elections with the Conservatives, under the clumsy title, Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force.
At the last Westminster election, Ulster Unionists struck electoral deals with both the DUP and independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon. In Fermanagh South Tyrone, both main unionist parties campaigned for Tom Elliott, while the UUP stood aside in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, to give rival candidates a free run.
Now they’re at it again.
At the Ulster Unionists’ annual conference last Saturday, Mike Nesbitt cavorted on stage with Colum Eastwood, announcing the party’s latest dalliance - the SDLP - its partner in Stormont’s official opposition. “Vote (for) Colum and me and you get a whole new middle ground politics”, the UUP leader promised the public.
This budding relationship may not yet be “exclusive”. In a pre-conference interview with the News Letter, Nesbitt refused to rule out another pact with the DUP, aimed at maximising “the number of pro-Union MPs from Northern Ireland.
Sam McBride wrote about the risk of confusing voters with multiple alliances, and noted that, to date, electors have been reluctant to transfer between unionist and nationalist candidates, or vice versa. There are other profound difficulties with marrying the parties’ philosophies, as well as their views on everyday issues at the Assembly.
The most obvious difference - on whether our constitutional future should lie with the UK or the Republic of Ireland - could have been surmounted more easily prior to the ‘Brexit’ referendum. After all, Eastwood pledged that, under his leadership, the SDLP will try to “make Northern Ireland work”, despite its long-term goal of a united Ireland.
However, the British public’s decision to leave the EU has revived nationalist hopes of loosening links with Great Britain and binding us more closely to the Republic of Ireland. The SDLP has promoted the idea of a “special status” for Northern Ireland that preserves elements of EU membership and dilutes ‘Brexit’, as it is likely to be implemented in the rest of the United Kingdom.
The UUP campaigned for ‘remain’, but it cannot reconcile its unionist principles with the idea that a nationwide vote is not binding in certain parts of the UK. Likewise, the party can’t justify taking part in Enda Kenny’s forum about the future of the island after Brexit, while it’s styled a ‘national conversation’ that purports to tackle policy for Northern Ireland.
Then there are a myriad of issues around the economy and welfare, where the UUP should, in theory, lean more to the centre-right than its partner.
That isn’t to say that working closely with the SDLP is a bad idea, if it’s done properly.
Together, the two parties form the Assembly’s ‘official opposition’: the main alternative to the power-sharing Executive, made up of the DUP and Sinn Fein. Their task is to scrutinise ministers’ decisions effectively and build a reputation for competence, that persuades voters they could do a better job.
Sadly, that seems very difficult currently. Neither the UUP nor the SDLP has presented a coherent critique of Stormont’s failings, never mind a decent plan to do things differently. Their appeal to voters relies mainly on the perception that they are less obnoxious than rival parties with broadly similar outlooks.
Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood have to persuade voters that the UUP and the SDLP comprise a credible opposition to the Executive, before anyone will believe that Northern Ireland politics has anything so grandiose as a “whole new middle ground”.
• Owen Polley is a public policy consultant and commentator