Two senior UUP figures have come to the defence of the idea of a more liberal style of unionism in the face of their party’s annihilation in the House of Commons.
Doug Beattie (MLA for Upper Bann) and Danny Kinahan (now-ousted UUP MP for South Antrim) both said that they are undeterred in their pursuit of such a goal despite the fact that the electorate returned no UUP MPs at all in the general election.
The big winners of the election were the DUP and Sinn Fein, who between then have 17 of the 18 seats in the Province (10 and seven, respectively).
Whilst DUP man Jeffrey Donaldson said that, as far as he was concerned, one of the things to emerge from the election was the impression that the voting unionist public “want to see a more united approach between the unionist parties”, Mr Beattie drew a sharp distinction between the two main parties.
He told the News Letter that the UUP and DUP are “poles apart”.
“I could not join the DUP in any shape or form, or would not join the DUP in any shape or form. Their brand of unionism is as alien to me as Sinn Fein’s brand of republicanism,” he told the News Letter.
He said his own party must “reach out” to young people, women, “the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community” – as well as “those people who’d be voting for nationalist or republican parties, and tell them that it’s ok to stay part of the UK and yet have an identity which defines you as being Irish”.
He added: “Even I myself have always classed myself as being Irish, Northern Irish and British, but a proud unionist”.
He said: “I’m not convinced that a lot of those who are voting [for] nationalist or republican parties really want to leave the UK, and I’m not convinced many of those voting for the DUP actually believe in their brand of unionism either.”
Rather, the DUP support may just come from “fear” over the future of the Union and the rise of Sinn Fein.
He said he “does not buy” the idea that his party leader Robin Swann is “conservative in his unionism” – adding that he stands behind Mr Swann “100%, if not 110%”.
MP Danny Kinahan told the News Letter he was concerned that the results reveal that “the centre ground is being pushed down to nothing”.
Following his initial win in South Antrim in 2015 (when he ejected DUP traditionalist Rev Willie McCrea), the then-UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that “people are looking I think for liberal, progressive politicians”.
Asked if Mr Kinahan’s election was an endorsement of socially-liberal unionism, he replied: “I would like to take it as that.”
On Friday, Mr Kinahan told the News Letter that the results reveal that “the centre ground is being pushed down to nothing”.
As to what went wrong for him this time, Mr Kinahan said: “I don’t know. I got an increased vote; I got many more people working for me. But I think there are people who are afraid of what’s going to happen in the future... whether it’s the threat to the union, Scottish [independence], Brexit, everything else that’s going on. We’ll have to sit down and have a think.”
It was put to him that perhaps the public do not want a liberal brand of unionism, and that the result is a rejection of just that concept.
“I think it’s fair reasoning. But it doesn’t stop me, for the right way forward I think is for a more liberal middle ground. I want to see the union thrive, I want to see a more liberal version of the union thrive which includes absolutely everybody.”