WB Maginess looks into the recent resignations from the Ulster Unionist Party…
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By WB Maginess
It can be quite rare that a matter goads this author into penning opinion for public consumption, but the departure from the UUP of Ringland and Bradshaw in quick succession has provoked both cause and motivation.
The liberal core of the UUP has been established as a notable going concern for more than 60 years, and it’s continued inability to secure the leadership of the party since the fall of O’Neill has been noted, particularly in recent years, indeed weeks.
So Ringland and Bradshaw were full participant members of this liberal core. That is indisputable. They took their chance, and were pushed forward, in both cases at the recommendation of Sir Reg rather than their associations, to be in the front ine of what Alex Kane has noted was the most liberal line up of UUP candidates in history. This proud “liberalista” was pleased with that turn of events, and was never convinced that their failure was in the most part down to the individuals (notwithstanding that amongst the best-performing candidates vis 2005 and indeed 2007 were older school border Unionists Messrs Kennedy, Hussey and to an extent Mrs Overend. Manwaring is the exception that proves the rule).
So what has caused the sudden exodus of these two liberals? Is it a sign of worsening relations between the UUP leadership and the party’s liberal core? Probably not. Tom Elliott is politically too centred on the west, that is no doubt true, but it is also true that Basil McCrea singularly failed to attract the votes of a sufficient majority of the liberal wing to make his defeat respectable.
Ringland and Bradshaw both backed McCrea, but many other liberals did not. One guesses at McCune, and also frankly Kinahan, but McClarty openly backed Elliott, many liberals in Upper Bann and greater Belfast. The most obvious example is prominent backer Mr Nesbitt. It remains to be seen how these individuals are treated by Elliott, but a cold house seems very unlikely.
Ringland’s exit was ludicrously unfortunate. His work in cross community relations is exemplary, and as a result it can hardly be a surprise that he took the issue of attitudes to the GAA seriously, but one doubts that his reaction was proportionate. Elliott could have couched his unease much better than he managed (for example, Unionists are by the Basic Rule of the GAA prohibited from membership, not to mention the high-profile contemporary backing of past terrorist campaigns), but to jump overboard at a refusal to attend a GAA game is more than a little silly, and does not do justice to Mr Ringland’s good grace, common decency and acumen in a range of areas. Neither does it do justice to Mr Elliott.
Bradshaw’s exit is on the face of it even more unnecessary. One suspects that her failure to be selected was indeed a conspiracy by malevolent forces within South Belfast UUP (as distinct from HQ or the leadership). Yes, in the opinion of this author neither Mr Finlay not Mr Henderson are better than Ms Bradshaw, but there are ways and means to ensure that she was on the ticket, which one has no doubt would have been deployed in a similar way to what will justly and doubtlessly happen to save Mr McClarty from the utter folly of deselection to the furious sound of grinding axes.
In short, she seems to have thrown the rattle out of the pram for reasons of ego, and it is particularly difficult to have sympathy for such an act.
The political futures of Bradshaw and Ringland are for the time being matters of speculation. They may well wish to scuttle off to obscurity in the Northern Ireland Conservatives, but it is clear to this observer that their departures are not necessarily the beginnings of an emptying of the liberal wing of the UUP of the scale which occurred in 1969 and the New Ulster Movement.
Doing so would almost certainly fail in a way that the previous experiment, sadly, did not. However Mr Elliott needs to be supremely careful not to lose any more liberals in this fashion, and as a result needs to carefully assess his positioning and attitude in the coming weeks.
The UUP and its liberal core are dependent on each other at this point in time. Neither the leadership nor the wing in question should lose sight of that.