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United Unionist Party? The case against…

In the comments section, St Etienne offered some interesting conclusions on the election during which he drew the following assumption: ‘the unionist electorate wants a united unionist party’.

I wonder about this assumption. Could a single unionist party in fact be a strategic mistake? I think there is danger in accepting a United Unionist Party (UUP?) as new orthodoxy without some rigorous debate.

Below is based on an email I sent to some friends yesterday. It’s a brief summary which I haven’t the time to tidy up (so the language is more definitive than it should be in some places). But this presents an alternative view – that a united unionist party is a strategic mistake.

[For balance, a well-considered – and no doubt better articulated piece – will  be posted up shortly which makes the case for uniting unionism.]

1. The DUP only moved after a progressive dynamic force broke new ground. If the UUP is rolled up into the DUP, there is no progressive force left within unionism. A single party will be like slamming the brakes on.

2. Can UUP folks who advocated an anti-sectarian / ‘normal politics’ advocate a single united unionist party? We invite nationalists to reciprocate. Two sectarian power blocs will emerge and society will steadily become more divided. It’s exactly the kind of politics the UUP said it is opposed to.

3. It’s in unionist interests that the SDLP remains. Its primary objectives are not to create a united Ireland at all costs. If we advocate power bloc politics, then we invite nationalism to be channelled by SF towards the primary goal of uniting ireland. A united unionist party is counterproductive in the long term.

4. How can a big party incorporating hardcore DUP & TUV elements really make a coherent case for shared future etc? Progressive unionism will end life as a outlier to the DUP core. We leave APNI (stated non-unionists) as sole advocates for inclusive politics.

5. There are two creeds within Unionism – that most unionists think unity is good in theory; that most unionists cannot tolerate unity in practice. The past tells us that unionists do not unite well. It is extremely likely a United unionist party will split (as its forebears have done). Why do we think a big party is some kind of El Dorado, an end destination where our dreams are answered?

6. Where will the Orange Order position themselves within this united party? I suspect the OO will become more influential than UUP folks in a new party.

7. A big, slow moving unionist-only party will not attract thousands of new / young voters. They are turned off by the single identity politics. What are we offering next generation voters and activists? Would they really want to see a united unionist party?

8. Leading on from this – what is the longevity of a United Unionist Party? Does unity not largely appeal to more senior voters? Is unionism now preparing to make itself attractive to a voter that simply will no longer be with us in 10 to 15 years?


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26 Responses

  1. I am sympathetic to these arguments (though would not describe myself as a Unionist), and I’d add one important data point, which is that (as a previous piece here demonstrated) the only united Unionist candidate in last week’s election actually failed to get elected.

  2. Further to Nicholas’ point, I would add (and have added here – that a single Unionist candidate would not have won South Belfast (proof of the power bloc point) and that the three big winners of the election were women able to attract Unionist votes without actually describing themselves as such on the ballot paper.

    Furthermore, there is a fundamental distinction between those who want to play a full role in the UK and those who just want to get what they can out of it.

  3. slug says:

    I like Nicholas am symoathetic to these points – I would be a UUP/Alliance floater and would unlike Nicholas be happy with the label Unionist or unionist-but not the kind of unionism that a united unionism would entail.

    IJP has blogged some lessons for UCUNF which I also agree wtih – you have to build up your candidates and they have to be ground workers, known to the voters.

  4. st etienne says:

    just to point out that my assumption of what the majority of the current unionist electorate wants is not an opinion I share!

    Although I fail to see what else could have been done in an extreme case like FST – bar sort it out a lot sooner than they did, and work it much harder.

    But going forward there is too much vote bleed in a united unionist scenario to make it a model for any other constituency, and much less so in any non-first past the post system.

    The irony is though this was only a Westminster pact. How can the grassroots be grown if the parties remain separate at grassroots politics level?

  5. Framer says:

    Some unified structure is particularly needed for electoral (and First Minister) purposes and without PR in many Westminster constituencies.

    However a single unified party is not required, rather an overarching structure allowing the existing parties (sub-parties hereafter) to get on with their own special needs and emphases. The different approaches in the Assembly are negligible, based more on old hurts and rivalries than present realities.

    Ian Parsley’s observation about the appeal of non-unionist women (Lo, Long and Hermon presumably) is only true because of particular circumstances and certain constituencies, nor is it attractive to politically ambitious unionist males. Indeed it sounds more like a call to return to Alliance in east Ulster.

    As for the SDLP, which survives in Foyle and South Down and to a degree in South Belfast because of Protestant votes, it reciprocates by being more nationalist and triumphalist than Sinn Fein, especially when observed at close quarters. Keep well away.

  6. dilettante11 says:

    Personally, I think that a united unionist party would be a long-term admission of defeat by unionism. Surely the principle point of unionist parties should be to engender a situation wherein they are no longer required to exist as such? Where the mainland parties contest the issues that effect the rest of the UK? Polling indicates that more than a third of Catholics support the union but less than 7% vote for unionist parties – winning their votes is the key to the long-term victory of unionism and a United Unionist Party does not offer much hope of that.

    • st etienne says:

      Agree with every single word of that.

    • I’d just add that taking part in UK-wide politics does not mean that we have to have the same political parties. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the CSU in Bavaria is a prime example of how a regional party can play a full part in national politics.

      • st etienne says:

        maybe, but having a different party here implies a difference at policy level. Otherwise I fail to see the use other than imagery.

        What would the policy differences be? And please don’t mention the block grant…

      • Don’t underestimate the power of imagery. And I’m not thinking of any specific policy differences, but of the (real and perceived) freedom to have policy differences.

  7. Mr Ulster says:

    When a UUP stalwart tried to get me excited about the UCUNF project, I moaned that I had seen it all before with Lawrence Kennedy in 1992. I replied that more radical would have been some effort by ULSTER Unionists to get engaged with Unionists on the rest of the island (i.e. the other three provinces).

    Just as even the SDLP gets frustrated by the lack of Nationalist love by their Southern counterparts (“Northerners are different”), there’s room for exploring unionism on this wider island, reaching beyond the parochialism and particularism of the 1925 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

    David Trimble, to give his due, did secure the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in his party’s negotiations for the Belfast Agreement. IMHO, Unionists should move on and act with more confidence about unionism on this island.

    If I was a Unionist (which I am not), I would be pushing for more extensive relationships across the board — East-West, North-South, all-islands — without reference to other Unionist parties. If they wish to sign up to this vision, great. But I wouldn’t be motivated by a reactive programme, which this talk of “unionist unity” comes across as.

    • st etienne says:

      Trying to help unionism in the south is a noble cause, but frankly has nothing to do with the running of the UK here and now. We want reform of the political landscape in this state before any engaging in any of the faux politicking that not even Irish nationalism preoccupies itself with to any great extent.

  8. […] ‘case for‘ & the ‘case against‘ unionist […]

  9. Tomagaddy says:

    Lots of sound points above. It is apparent that if the defeatists have their way that many of the activists of the UUP (and their recent candidates?) will NOT be going along with their sell out

  10. deirdre says:

    Don’t agree with unionist unity. Where do secualr civc unionists go if there is one single united (DUP-Run) party?? Turnout will continue to decline and sectarian politics wins by default. The old certainties- vote or the bogey men will get you- no longer apply. It’s 14 years since the IRA ceasefire- half a generation- and many young people who will be able to vote at the next general election won’t know the Troubles as anything other than history. The Union is secure; policy differences are not a bad thing; let’s have proper grown-up debate. It’s time to stop running from the bogey man.

    • slug says:

      Deirdre join the UUP please.

    • slug says:

      deirdre is 100% right. The union is secure. That is why unionism is in disarray ironically.

      David Cameron has become PM. There is no good reason for UUP to ditch him.

      A potentially policy focused election campaign was distracted by late candidate selction, the South Antrim fiasco, the distraction into pacts etc. Pacts were a mistake – sectarianise the election and play into the DUP and SF hands.

  11. emanonon says:

    There is no logical case for one unionist party that uses the union as the glue that holds it together. There are much more diffucult issues that would drive it apart such the desire to have a pluralist society, the debate bewtween conservatism and socialism and not least the Orange Order which lurks behind sections of Unionist thinking. The divisions between the UUP and DUP are too deep to be reconciled even with the departure of Robinson from the scene.

    The only thing that could temporarily cause unity is the propect of SF holding the office First Minister. That is a poor reason for causing unity that would see the end of the UUP as the DUP would swallow them up and allow a new unionist party based around the Conservatives, with new UUP members, to emerge.

    If the Conservatives can move the appointment of the First Minister back to the GFA arrangement then the UUP Conservative link can proceed. It would need a new party to be formed that would be part of the Conservative party but run separately in NI with local people and policies relevant to NI whilst accepting Conservative policy nationally. It would have no links to the Orange Order and be open to all, and would use the best of the Conservatives and UUP to forge a new identity that the people in NI who believe in the Union could relate to.

    It is a crossroads for unionism to decide if it wants a parochial inward looking, begging bowl, negative vision or one that combines a fierce local pride in NI and its people but with an equal place in the Union along side Scotland England and Wales where they can contribute fully to the Union.

    It will take leadership to achieve a vision of a strong and forward looking Unionism but the people of NI deserve it after 40 years of failure, negatism and fear about the future of Northern Ireland.

    Who will pick up the baton?

    • slug says:

      Agree with your post.

      In particular: “The only thing that could temporarily cause unity is the propect of SF holding the office First Minister. That is a poor reason for causing unity that would see the end of the UUP as the DUP would swallow them up and allow a new unionist party based around the Conservatives, with new UUP members, to emerge.”

      This would be a terrible reason for unionist unity. For both principled and practical reasons.

      Principle: Unioinism should not be a reaction to SF getting the FM job. I agree about returning to GFA structures. But I also argue that the FM jobs are not different in power so it is a thin reason, and perhaps a bigoted reason, for such a drastic move as unionist unity .

      Practical: Unionist unity would play into SF hands, who would urge nationalist unity behind SF as a reaction.

      Finally – it looks like we are getting PR elections to the House of Lords. The UCU can certainly win seats there under a PR format. And AV to the house of commons – if the referendum is won – also brings benefits to UCU.

      There is much to work towards.

  12. Food For Thought says:

    Bobballs’ points are all excellent reasons why a ‘united’ Unionist party would be undesirable, and against the long-term interests of Unionism as a whole.

    A single party would narrow Unionism’s potential appeal, not broaden it. Political competition is a very good thing for political parties – it keeps them on their toes, always seeking new thinking, better policies, more effective and responsive constituency work in order to out-perform their competition.

    You only need to look at the experience of the old 1920-1972 Unionist party to see other downsides. A single Unionist party would mean many/most Unionist MPs/MLAs faced little competition – leading to stagnation, complacency, little need for effective constituency work, and even lower unionist turnout than at present. There’s nothing like the prospect of being turfed out by the voters at the next election to keep an MP/MLA focussed.

    That said, this election has left the DUP as the only clearly viable unionist party. The stark electoral failure of the Tory/UCUNF project means the very future of the UUP is now in question. (The fact that people are having this ‘single party’ debate is proof of that).

    The UUP spent the last 18 months going down a futile Tory dead-end (I think it was Mick Fealty who called this “the brick wall at the end of the tunnel”).

    The total absence of any electoral upside to the Tory link (instead an ’05-’10 drop from 17.7% to 15.2%) makes it all the more painful to contemplate the massive sacrifices the UUP made on the barren Tory Party altar – not least the departure of talented representatives like Sylvia 63.3% Hermon MP and Alan McFarland MLA, and the loss of its precious, decades-old ‘big tent of left, right and centre’ philosophy which had broad appeal across the pro-Union spectrum.

    In the meantime, the UUP’s competitors in Alliance and the DUP have not been standing still – Alliance have grown their support among loyalist working class voters. The DUP have seen off the TUV while, in recent months, often seeming more comfortable with a ‘Shared Future within the Union’ than the UUP.

    So…… the answer to this whole ‘single party’ debate may well be that Unionism is better served by two viable parties rather than one, but the UUP (the only Unionist party with the potential to compete with the DUP) is in a terrible, perhaps terminal state.

    To have a future the UUP needs to elect a new, unambiguously progressive leader, terminate the failed Tory link, bring back the ‘big tent of left, right and centre’ – and essentially reboot the Party as offering a clearly more positive, progressive, non-sectarian Unionist alternative to the DUP.

    That’s the bare minimum, after that there’ll still be a tough fight ahead – but Northern Ireland and Unionism would both benefit over the long-run from a revived, independent UUP.

  13. While I am encouraged by many of the views expressed here, and glad that there is plenty of resistance to pan-Unionism, I’m disappointed that the debate is still couched in terms of what is best for Unionism, rather than what is best for Northern Ireland (although I probably shouldn’t be surprised, given the title of the blog). The possibility that these interests may not align has not been discussed.

    Yes, Westminster is important and will continue to be for as long as NI remains part of the UK. But day to day policy decisions now rest in the Assembly. While united Unionism may be a tempting Westminster tactic it would be disastrous for the Assembly. There remains a dominant illiberal majority around the Executive table. A united Unionist party sharing power with a retrenchant Sinn Féin would only exacerbate the lack of accountability at Stormont, and reduce the choice available at the ballot box.

    The alternatives presented so far (UCUNF, UUP reboot) do not address the problem that there remain two almost completely disconnected electoral contests. UCUNF was sold (partly) as an attempt to woo Catholics to the Liberal Unionist cause. If this had succeeded, it would have expanded unionist representation at the expense of nationalism – an end in itself perhaps, but the obvious effect on nationalism would be to reduce the SDLP and thereby boost SF. For that very reason, the likelihood of mass defections from moderate nationalism was unlikely.

    So long as power-sharing exists, there is a strong disincentive for moderate voters to cross the communal divide, which is a requirement for normal politics. But power-sharing will not be removed until normal politics is well-established. Solving this chicken-and-egg problem is more important than internal unionist divisions.

    • st etienne says:

      It’s long been argued that the current structure institutionalises the divide. I feel though for change at as you suggest an NI to be brought about it can only come from within unionism. More focus on the ultimate goal is no doubt a help, but the groundwork must begin within unionism. Potential non-tribal unionists are not going to give us the benefit of the doubt until we do.

      Structurally things at the assembly are far from ideal, but until we address unionism’s failings in accommodating a wider section of society we can’t really address it imo.

      • My point is that if unionism does accommodate a wider section of society, it will make SF stronger. Imagine an unlikely future where the nationalist share of the vote has been reduced from 45-50% to 30-35%. Sinn Fein would likely be the only nationalist party, possibly the largest single party, and the prospects for removing the powersharing scaffolding would be bleak.

  14. Alan N/ARDS says:

    I personally would find it hard to support a United Unionist Party that would be led by most of the unionist politicians around at the moment. Both my wife and I are considering voting for the Alliance party at next years election. Not because we our Liberals, because I can assure you there are many of their policies we a do not like. We are just sick of the constant squabbling.

    The link up with the Tories was a mistake yet we both couldn’t bring ourselves to vote for the DUP because of the nastiness of most of their leading players towards on tv , towards other unionists. They were absolutely appalling. My wife asked the question “do they recieve training in how to be rude”. We opted for Mike Nesbitt in the end as he was just head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates.

    I also would be concerned about the influence the Orange Order could/would have in any united party. Their attemted interference in South Belfast was to say the least a disgrace and would, or dare I say has, put many middle class unionists of votinig for any party where they held sway.

    Unionism needs to stop be anti the other side. Our politicians need to stop putting down things like the Irish language or indeed anything Irish because the other side advocate them. We need to be confident and stop looking to the past.

    If there was to be one mainstream Unionist Party I would hope some one like Sylvia Hermon could lead it.

    • slug says:

      To be honest I have hardly ever heard Sylvia in a debate and I just am not sure how politically serious she is. While I agree she has star quality I don’t think being a leader would be her forté. Does not seem a team player.

      As for the rest of your post however I agree fully.

      Unionism can afford to change now the union is not under attack. It can be bigger and better.

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