Northern Ireland

Alex Kane: The Ulster Unionist Party needs to revisit 1998

Doug Beattie at an Ulster Unionist Party manifesto launch
Doug Beattie at an Ulster Unionist Party manifesto launch Doug Beattie at an Ulster Unionist Party manifesto launch

The UUP appears to be enduring yet another internal crisis.

A meeting of MLAs, councillors and party officers has been called for Tuesday evening to deal with (according to some leaked correspondence) "personal relationships which are effecting the ability to work together for the good of the party and country...because MLAs and councillors are not always singing off the same hymn sheet and it is important to get them all speaking as one voice".

Speaking as one voice on Friday, Doug Beattie said: “I can’t sit back and pretend everything is perfect. I look at the problems we face —problems about making sure we can get our message out. Making sure that people know the nuance of our stance on things like the Windsor Framework and other issues —  and making sure that, right down to the lowest levels of the party, people understand that. And to do that I need to bring people together, including my councillors.”

The problem, of course, is that nuance is a two-edged sword.

It certainly allows for a useful degree of ambiguity (the sort of ambiguity which allows a party to row back if a tidal wave of unpleasant reality looks like sweeping across from Westminster), but ambiguity is always difficult to sell in the studio and on the doorstep.

And if your own party representatives and members are struggling with the nuance of party policy, then you can be fairly sure that existing and potential voters will be struggling, too. Struggling so much, in fact, that they are likely to tune out and drop out.

Read more:

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Another problem for the party — the keystone problem, in fact - is that it still hasn’t accepted, let alone dealt with, the root of most of its problems since 1998.

All of the reinventions, reforms, overhauls and change of leaderships can be traced to one specific moment. All of the difficulties which eventually hamstrung David Trimble, Reg Empey, Tom Elliott, Mike Nesbitt, Steve Aiken, Robin Swann and Doug Beattie can be traced to that moment.

All of the difficulties in securing and expanding the voter base can be traced to that moment.

And that moment happened on June 25, 1998. The first election to the new assembly. The UUP came in behind the SDLP, the first time a nationalist party had emerged as the largest party (a result which steered DUP thinking at St Andrews in 2006).

Crucially, the UUP didn’t win a comfortable majority of the unionist vote, either; and in terms of seats, it was reliant on the PUP to reach the thirty threshold.

About five of its MLAs were GFA sceptics and over half of its parliamentary party were openly hostile. For most of the period between 1998 and 2005 the party was hobbled by civil war.

In other words, the party which prided itself on doing all of the heavy lifting on the unionist side got nothing in the way of electoral benefits or historical reward. It was relentlessly undermined by the British government (which had shifted all of its efforts to persuading the DUP and SF to cut their own bespoke deal) and saw increasing numbers of its former voters and members switch to the DUP.

I don’t think the party has ever accepted and thought-through the realities and long-term consequences of that moment. I still hear key players talking about the heavy lifting; almost as if they think an ungrateful electorate owes them something. And while I accept that the party did take huge risks, it never really focused attention on why the risks and hard work weren’t rewarded.

Had it moved too far ahead of its own base (which some people think it is doing now over the Framework)? Or was it the case that its own very obvious fractiousness played badly against the DUP’s solidity (a solidity which allowed it to win massive unionist support on the back of cutting a deal which brought Martin McGuinness and SF into the very heart of government)?

Look at the party’s position right now. The DUP has made a monumental, absolute dog’s dinner of almost everything it has touched since the Brexit referendum in 2016. You name it and the DUP has made a mess of it. Yet the DUP is sitting at 28% in the latest LucidTalk poll (having hauled itself up from a calamitous low of 13% a couple of years ago), while the UUP has plunged to 8% (down from 16% in 2021 to its lowest ever rating).

The overwhelming mood across the UUP is one of concern. I don't detect any immediate threat to Beattie — but that may be more to do with the lack of an obvious successor than enthusiasm for him. The dip to 8% came as a shock, leading many to the conclusion that the party is out of step with broad unionist thinking on both the Framework and the necessity of devolution itself.

The party seems to occupy a sort of limbo between what I describe as small-u unionism (many of whom are drifting to Alliance) and big-U traditional values unionism (mostly from the west of the province and falling in numbers). The clarity and focus of the core message often leave a lot to be desired — and confuse big-U, small-u and potential new voters.

Beattie has to find a way of doing what Donaldson has done in two years; pulling the DUP from 13% to 28%. To be honest, I'm not sure how he does that. The DUP has retaken the unionist majority — and comfortably so. Alliance is sweeping up small-u unionism.

The TUV has staked out the ground to the right of the DUP. And I don't think the sort of territory that NI21 tried to stake out a decade ago would now gravitate towards the UUP.

Where does Beattie plant the UUP flag? What message has it got that is not available elsewhere? Again, I don't know the answer. Nor do most of the members: and that's his biggest problem of all. The UUP is not finished — far from it if it finds a way of sorting itself out — but survival depends on knowing what, precisely, it stands for: an identity which isn’t wrapped in nuance.

Maybe a weekend conference with a how-do-we-rebuild-and-reinvent-ourselves agenda might help. What won’t help is another pointless reinvention or pretending that all is well —w hen it quite clearly isn’t. Let’s face it, 8% would unsettle anyone belonging to, or thinking of voting for any political party.