UUP church is too broad
DECIDING not to renew my UUP subscription was not a hasty decision. I talked with friends and colleagues within the UUP over a period and expressed my misgivings with the direction in which I felt the party was going.
During summer 2012 I had conversations in Belfast and elsewhere with senior party members and MLAs some of whom shared my concerns.
There are others who felt the main problems were around a lack of party discipline and cohesion.
The evidence for the latter is compelling but it is my view that all the issues are inter-twined.
If core policy is consistent, clear and agreed then there is something tangible for members to commit to through conviction and discipline flows from this. Historically, this has been an on-going issue for the UUP.
Since the early days of the Ulster Unionist Council the UUP has functioned as a so-called broad church.
To some extent this reduced against the emergence of Dr Ian Paisley and hard-edged Protestant Unionism but the UUP continued to function as a broad coalition particularly after the demise of the UPNI, Vanguard and other attempts at differentiating the unionist constituency.
Broad, less sectarian unionism coalesced against IRA/ Sinn Fein tactics of the bullet and the ballot box.
It was survivalist and held together for reasons of security, defence and preservation albeit that it did also address social and economic concerns.
UUP members at Westminster, outside periods when relations were strained as result of policy differences, for the most part acted closely with the Conservatives when they were in government but when it became clear that there was a bi-lateral approach to Northern Ireland by the major parties at Westminster this too became less robust.
Following the Belfast Agreement major differences became evident within the UUP. The policy and tactical risks taken under the leadership of David Trimble split the party. Fed by opposition from outside, a large group of UUP members consistently opposed the leadership and this resulted in turbulence within the party which undermined its capacity to take forward its agenda for peace and stability.
When key personalities who had been the focus of opposition to the leadership left the UUP the problem did not disappear completely.
It was less vocal but was still prevalent, influenced by the experiences of members in different areas of the country and by organisations to which they also give allegiance.
There are also socio-economic and cultural differences in the profile of the membership. All of this is in the mix.
It might be argued that David Trimble failed to carry his constituency with him and this is exemplified by electoral results which indicated a decline in support for UUP policies.
His was not an easy task however with pressure from Britain, Ireland, Europe and the USA, the problems of de-commissioning, suspensions of the Assembly and the exploitation of fear and an early but growing disenchantment with the Peace Process by the DUP.
Relations between the UUP and the SDLP, the two major groupings in the early Assemblies were not as constructive as they might have been.
It is also sadly the case that in spite of the Peace Process, sectarianism is still present in our society and the unionist parties of whatever ilk have not engaged their electorate in adapting constructively to the political implications of the process.
In the midst of this, the UUP, as shown by election results, lost the trust and confidence of many of the electorate. This is indicated in the loss of its position as the main unionist party.
It retained a core vote but lost out to a growing number of non-voters and the greater attraction of the fear-fuelled politics of the DUP.
The figures are a matter of historical record.
In the 2010 Westminster elections, whilst there were some near misses in South Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone with small improvement in other areas, the UUP was left with no seats in Parliament – a major confidence-sapping, political and financial setback.
The UUP could no longer claim to be the voice of unionism. In spite of rule changes and limited structural changes at the centre, the inherent problems of the broad church, strong independent thinking, freedom from discipline and other factors helped to produce this result.
The Report which I was asked to produce by the then leader, Sir (now Lord) Reg Empey drew attention to this. It was tabled to the Party Officers in July 2010. Soon after, the leadership of the party changed as Reg Empey was replaced by Tom Elliott MLA. Extracts were presented to the Party Executive in February 2011
Although the Report was confidential extracts are in the public domain and there has been all too much evidence of the issues referred to in the electoral results for the UUP in the last Assembly and Council elections namely resignations, public perception of the party, swings and gaps in policy, diminished influence, and mixed messages over tactics, strategy and policy.
Other parties experience some if not all of these but the UUP does not manage to cope in the same way. The church is too broad and in the absence of an over-arching focus, there is tension as individuals struggle to remain loyal to the party and their own political convictions.
This is exacerbated by lack of linkage within the party from the centre to the periphery. It is probably also true that the leadership has been too tolerant of dissension but this again is explained by the absence of clearly articulated core values and message underpinned by agreed strategy, linked to all levels of the membership.
A factor over the last few years has been the changes in emphasis on key issues like unionist unity which has resulted in mixed messages to the electorate.
During the Westminster elections, it became known that whilst the UUP had links with the Conservatives, there were ongoing talks with the DUP.
These were supported by some but opposed by others. During the election an electoral pact was agreed for Fermanagh and South Tyrone but not for South Belfast. Not all candidates struck to the script.
Divisions have once again surfaced over the flags issues and the Mid-Ulster By-Election as the broad church comes under pressure. For some members, the UUP is coming too close to a model of unionist unity which they find unacceptable.
There is a belief that the party is aligning with Protestant unionism and moving from a more progressive and inclusive unionism.
Whilst it is explained as greater collaboration and that the UUP is willing to collaborate with other parties in the interests of the electorate and the country, it is hard to see the UUP agreeing an electoral pact with other than the DUP. The result will be a pan-unionist bloc with the obvious consequences.
If this is an agreed policy supported by the overwhelming majority of party faithful, then the UUP may be the better for it. Current leader Mike Nesbitt MLA is on record as saying that the UUP may need to become smaller before it can become bigger and he has articulated this as a long-term aim.
He is probably right but in taking the party in the direction in which it seems to be going, there will be those like myself, who will wish to pursue a wider-appeal and pluralist agenda.
Many have already opted for this. If numbers grow and leadership emerges, than a re-alignment of and a new definition of energised unionism could result. Recent events and poll results suggest that there is a need for such a political alternative.
Unionism needs to break free from the narrow definition into which it has been pushed by sectarian nationalism. What was a life-jacket in 1912 has become a strait-jacket since 1920.
Unionism is not the exclusive property of one religious denomination and needs to express itself not just as support for the Union but as capable of determining economic, social, educational and health policies for all regardless of creed, ethnicity, culture and socio-economic grouping and test this before the electorate.
It has to also tackle the failings of the NI Assembly and argue for its review to achieve more constructive and accountable governance.
It will have to re-engage with those who have become frustrated by the fact that in many respects old problems are all too apparent below the well-funded veneer of the NI Assembly. It must make itself relevant to the voters.
It needs to set a new agenda and distance itself from communal and self-defeating communalism. It is a challenge but the posturing and shadow-boxing cannot go on.
Years after the Good Friday Agreement the community is struggling with old problems and new situations which serve only to illustrate the inability of those elected to govern.
Priorities are informed by populist and communal interests which drain the public purse and produce limited, if any, economic growth. Sectarian division is managed but not eradicated.
No one will have all the answers but at least a more dynamic and re-defined unionism will ask the right questions.
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