The path leading to a political party which is non-sectarian, Northern Ireland centred and neutral on the position of the Union is full of stepping stones. Those stones are neither in a straight line nor at the same stepping distance. Depending upon which stones are stepped upon, there is more than one way to travel along that path.
I believe that such a party will come to be formed along one of those paths within a generation. Naturally though, I hope it will be much sooner than that.
It may be very difficult, at this distance in time, to foresee a link between the recent UUP leadership election and the possible formation of such a party in the future. In political evolutionary terms, it could be as distant as the link between the Anglo Irish Agreement and the Belfast Agreement 13 years later. Nevertheless, this contest has revealed a glimpse of some of those stepping stones.
At the outset of the contest, the Conservative Party had some interest in its outcome. Before it was known that neither of the UUP leadership candidates were in favour of retaining an electoral pact, Tories pondered as to whether the link should continue. Furthermore, some Conservatives hoped and still hope, that the party would pick up new members from the pool of disgruntled UUP supporters who see no purpose or future for their party.
There was also the bigger picture. To what extent did this leadership election progress Northern Ireland politics towards normal non-sectarian politics?
Very few Unionists were wowed by either of the candidates. Unionist, such as Alex Kane on Hearts and Minds last week and Unionist bloggers such as Chekov and Bobballs found the campaign very uninspiring and were particularly critical. Nonetheless, those last two mentioned names, along with O’Neill very much represent the voice of the Progressive/Civic wing of the UUP. Each of those bloggers concluded that their party would have the best chance of success if it elected Basil McCrea.
Tom Elliott has won the leadership contest because he is the standard bearer of the party’s Insular/Cultural wing which presently holds most of the positions of power in the Party. The people within this wing are elderly. Their influence will decline as the influence of the Progressive/Civic wing strengthens. Will the UUP be too weakened to carry on in existence by the time that the Progressive/Civic wing is strong enough to take over?
In his article for The Sunday Times entitled “Standing Still is not an option for Elliott,” Liam Clarke examines Elliott’s problems. He maintains that the “tweedy, soft-spoken country boy look that plays so well in Fermanagh” is part of his difficulty. He observes him as looking “bleary-eyed and rumpled” on TV and sounding as “dull as dishwater” when on radio. On the subject of the GAA, he says that Elliott has “been to too many meetings in Orange Halls to realise that it is acceptable to wish Down well in the All Ireland”
As to Mr. Elliott’s presentation, he says this:
“He badly needs media training and a makeover, however. He is only 46, but can come across as an old man. The hair and clothes wont do. It is foolish to brush off the possibility of attending GAA matches or gay events as “tokenism”. If you want to win votes, a public gesture can count for a lot. Elliott needs to dream up some gestures to broaden his appeal.”
On his political posture, Clarke says that Elliott has two choices:
“He can throw his lot in with the DUP or strike out on his own.”
About the second choice, Clarke says:
“He needs to find a new direction and quickly”
And as to what that means in practice:
“If he wants to preserve the party they entrusted with him, however, he has to surprise them by becoming more like McCrea. That is the way to motivate 20% of the Catholics who favour the union, and increasing numbers of Protestants who stay at home.”
“If Elliott doesn’t live up to his act, he could go down in history as the last leader of the UUP. It would be better to throw in his lot with the DUP here and now than let his party bleed to death. The status quo is no longer an option.”
So Clarke thinks there is little chance of Elliott doing what is necessary to save the UUP.
I would agree with that but would not be so hasty in writing off the UUP. Much depends upon its performance after the next Assembly election in the spring of next year. If it loses any number of seats or fails to gain any, there will be calls for a new leadership election. Elliott, then, will have no choice but to resign or submit himself to a leadership poll. The question then will be whether the party can be saved under a new Progressive/Civic wing leader. I suggest that it can, so long as the party loses no more than a very small number of seats – perhaps 2-3.
It is no secret that my preferred candidate for the UUP leadership was Basil McCrea. Yes, he lost by a considerable margin but as a moderate in his party. He has now gone further towards a cross-community position than any other senor Ulster Unionist politician. The impact of his campaign has been to loosen Ulster Unionism and that is the point which I join to my earlier question about the impact of the UUP leadership campaign on Northern Ireland politics.
McCrea is now in the happy position of being the leader of a wing of his party which can only grow in size and power. If he wins the leadership election after 2011 with enough MLAs still remaining, he can look forward to the possible ultimate prize of his party, once again, representing mainstream unionism. What if the party is too weak for him to save?
That is a scenario that the Conservatives need to prepare for. I have already set out very strong reasons why the Conservatives should become an independent party but there is now a further reason. McCrea and his followers would not wish to join the Conservative Party in its present form with power concentrated in London. That is why the Conservative Party should be preparing immediately for the Northern Irish Conservative Party to become independent.
As for the campaign which I have initiated on this blog, it is not possible to chart its next course until the outcome of the Assembly Elections is known.
Liam Clarke’s suggestion that the 20% of Catholics who support the Union would immediately represent a new stream of voting support if the UUP became more civic is probably far fetched. For the time being, the Unionist parties in their present form remain a cold house for Catholics. Nonetheless, the UUP leadership election might yet become an evolutionary link to normal politics.