Back in the 1950s the American Democrat Adlai Stevenson summed up the state of his Republican rivals thus: “a political party divided against itself, half McCarthy and half Eisenhower, cannot produce national unity.”
That’s the problem for the Ulster Unionists, a political party which is half traditional and half liberal. The broad church concept is good in theory, but it cannot work in practice if the two halves (and, let’s not forget, there are further sub-divisions within each half) don’t have the same definition of heaven.
Over the past few weeks—and against the background of the ‘flag protests’—the two halves of the party have been waging war again, with yet another battle over rules, policy and internal control.
The Disciplinary Committee’s decision on Friday evening was a classic piece of UUP fudge making. In considering the charges of disloyalty and indiscipline levelled against Basil McCrea they had to keep three considerations in mind:
• Cover Nesbitt’s back. Anything less than a decisive victory for the leader would have fatally wounded a man who is already pretty weak.
• Ensure McCrea wouldn’t be allowed to present himself as a martyr. It’s been clear for some time that he wants to be hounded out of the party, so that he can claim that it is now a cold house for liberals and pluralists. Indeed, a senior party member told me that ‘Basil would happily provide the kindling and set fire to himself if he thought it would help his cause.’
• Provide just enough ‘punishment’ to allow the UUP’s three remaining Belfast councillors to stay in the party. They had threatened to defect unless McCrea was punished for what they viewed as his public attack on them. Nesbitt can’t afford to lose them, because it would leave the UUP with just two MLAs as their only elected representatives in Belfast.
The decision announced by the Committee ticked each of those boxes. They found him guilty as charged and then handed down the most lenient of the punishments available to them — a formal warning (their other choices were a fine, suspension, ‘not in good standing’ status or expulsion from the party).
They also passed the final decision to Nesbitt (which is, I suspect, a burden he didn’t want); because he, and only he, can now decide to restore the party whip to McCrea. Again, his options are limited:
1) He can keep McCrea at arm’s length and not rush to restore the whip. That leaves McCrea free to criticise a little longer and holds out the prospect of another disciplinary process further down the line.
2) He could restore the whip immediately (he doesn’t even need to talk to McCrea beforehand) but say that any repeat of the indiscipline or disloyalty would result in immediate expulsion. That would look generous, like the actions of a leader who was prepared to try and re-build bridges. But it would also force Basil to decide if he really would be comfortable on the inside again: and it would close the door to another grandstanding battle with the Disciplinary Committee on an issue of his choosing.
3) Or Nesbitt could try and cut a deal. Meet McCrea privately and offer to restore the whip, but demand a public guarantee from him that he will agree to be bound by ‘the collected rules, constitution and Standing Orders of the UUP’ (the same as every other party member). That’s a good option for Nesbitt: for it presents McCrea with a straight choice between emasculation and emancipation. Nesbitt is probably banking that McCrea wouldn’t accept the offer anyway and would choose to leave.
Of course, it is possible that McCrea will drag it out a while longer, with an appeal to the Party Officers (which he would almost certainly lose), followed by a trip to court. He believes that he has been wronged, found guilty on charges of which he is innocent. The trouble with that route is that the media, the public and even his own supporters will start getting bored.
To paraphrase the Groucho Marx maxim, ‘why continue to fight a party that doesn’t seem to want you and to which you don’t really want to belong anyway?
Here’s the nub of all of this: Nesbitt wants McCrea to go and McCrea wants to go — although McCrea would prefer to have gone as a martyr. There is going to be no meeting of minds between these two men because they want to take the party in entirely different directions. It is in the interests of both men, therefore (and of the UUP too), that there be a parting of the ways.
McCrea wants to start a new party: that much has been obvious for some time. It would begin as an Assembly grouping with him, John McCallister and David McClarty and would, or so he hopes, attract a handful of councillors. There are a couple of years until the next Assembly election, which gives them time to build a platform and profile. They could present themselves as the Opposition and concentrate on a handful of key issues.
They would get official recognition and speaking rights and (if memory of Assembly rules serves) funding. They would also be an attractive trio for media coverage, since all three are good, natural communicators (and much better than most of the UUP’s Assembly team).
They have a problem in that they could look like a refugee camp for disgruntled Ulster Unionists. But this could be offset if they managed to attract entirely new faces and voices to their side and persuaded one good candidate to stand in each constituency at the next Assembly election.
McCrea and McClarty have a good chance of re-election. McCallister has a more difficult task in South Down, but I wouldn’t discount his chances of sneaking home in the right circumstances.
Comparisons have been made with Faulkner’s Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s. But this is an entirely different background. Mainstream unionism has accepted power-sharing and the UUP is no longer the colossus it was. Also, a very large section of the pro-Union electorate has opted out of politics and voting, presumably because they have no interest in voting DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, Conservative, Alliance et al.
There is clearly a gap in the market. Whether a new soft-u, pro-Union vehicle (concentrating on an issues agenda rather than symbols and headcounts) could attract a significant tranche of that market is open to question, but it’s certainly worth a go.
So, what does the UUP do in those circumstances? Well, it would do exactly what Nesbitt (and a tightly knit band of cronies) have been planning to do since he became leader almost a year ago—conclude an electoral pact with the DUP.
When Nesbitt said he had ‘no big idea and no quick fixes’ (a mantra he repeated again a couple of weeks ago) he wasn’t entirely truthful. His big idea is to cut a deal with the DUP to save the UUP from electoral extinction. As a member of the Erne Group back in 2011 (a ‘private’ group established by then leader Tom Elliott) he was well aware that David McNarry and others were talking to the DUP.
He was equally well aware that those talks included discussions about electoral arrangements beneficial to both parties. On taking the leadership he surrounded himself with people who liked the idea of a much cosier relationship with the DUP and a new outreach to the Orange and Ulster-Scots communities.
When Nesbitt said that “we have to shrink to grow” he actually meant getting rid of liberals (having bought into the view that it was a waste of time trying to reach out and attract the so-called pluralists and moderates) as well as getting rid of known troublemakers. He happily sacrificed McNarry: partly to make himself look tough, but also because McNarry was an unguided missile.
He let Ken Maginnis go (his comments on the Nolan show provided the exit strategy); because he knew that he would not support the idea of moving too close to the DUP. He wants rid of McCrea and McCallister for the same reasons. Put bluntly, Nesbitt doesn’t want anyone in the party who causes him problems with the media or who is prepared to challenge his push towards the DUP.
It’s a cold, hard, utterly ruthless gameplan, but maybe it’s the right plan in the circumstances. The recent BBC/Spotlight poll put the UUP at 13.2%, exactly the same level of support they had at the 2011 Assembly election—their worst ever result. Nesbitt’s disapproval ratings, with UUP supporters and the wider unionist community, were uncomfortably high for a man who should still have been enjoying a honeymoon period. In other words, the UUP is still flat-lining.
In the 2009 Euro election Jim Allister failed to hold his seat on 13.7% of the vote. The next Euro election is in June 2014 and both the Conservatives and UKIP will be fielding candidates—who are more likely to damage the UUP than the DUP. Last year there were hints that the DUP was toying with the idea of putting up two candidates. That scared the UUP.
They rely on their MEP’s office costs to provide some staff and rent. The loss of their MEP, having already lost all their MPs, would be crippling for them. If that loss came a year before Assembly and council elections it would, almost certainly, have a devastating knock-on effect.
The UUP also has a problem with their Assembly team. Only three came in on the first count in 2011 (Tom Elliott, Danny Kennedy and Basil McCrea). If McCrea goes—and I think he will, taking McCallister with him—then the party starts with only 13 MLAs, 8 of whom came in on the last or second last count. The slightest slippage could easily rob them of another four or five MLAs.
A deal with the DUP makes sense, for it would give the UUP much needed transfers at both Assembly and council elections. A deal would also help at the Euro election, ensuring that the DUP didn’t field a second candidate and guaranteeing a considerable bulk of transfers from Diane Dodds.
A deal would also be beneficial—again, to both parties—at Westminster. Neither South Belfast nor North Down can be won back if the DUP and UUP oppose each other. North Belfast could be a problem for Nigel Dodds if he also has to see off a UUP candidate. East Belfast may look easier to win back now that the boundaries aren’t going to change, but the incumbent always has an advantage. So if the UUP and DUP could come to some ‘arrangement’ there are obvious advantages for them—including giving the UUP a clear run in at least two constituencies.
Something else they may be considering is fielding what would be, to all intents and purposes, joint candidates at the next Assembly election. Say, for example, they branded themselves as the United Democratic and Ulster Unionist Parties and, between them, won between 50 and 53 seats, that would guarantee the First Minister’s job and also increase their early pick of ministerial posts when d’Hondt is triggered.
Last October John McCallister was removed as deputy leader of the UUP Assembly Group because he had warned of the danger of the party being seen to ‘sleep walk’ into unionist unity. Yet since that demotion the UUP and DUP have cooperated on joint letters, leaflets, statements, initiatives, a Unionist Forum and negotiations about an agreed candidate in Mid-Ulster.
One of Nesbitt’s Party Officers told me that ‘cooperation and nailed-down pacts with the DUP may be the only way of saving the UUP at this point. Mike has lost all credibility with the middle ground of unionism and there are no votes coming from there anytime soon.’
Realignment is taking place across and within the entire pro-Union constituency (as well as more broadly than that). The Conservatives and UKIP are organising and recruiting—although I’m not anticipating anything resembling a breakthrough from either. It seems very likely that there will be a new vehicle involving McCrea and Co.
There are rumblings of activity from new groups like the NI Progress Party and Vote NI. The Alliance Party will lose some of its ‘unionist’ base as a consequence of having been seen to support Sinn Fein on reducing the number of days the Union Flag flies (although it would argue that it simply voted for its existing policy).
In other words there is going to be a greater scrabbling for votes within the pro-Union constituency and that will put the UUP, in particular, under enormous pressure. Nesbitt has only one job now: it’s not about expanding the UUP into new areas and taking on the DUP, it’s actually about ensuring the survival of the UUP. Nesbitt, along with those closest to him, have decided that survival depends on much closer cooperation with the DUP. So the departure of people like McCrea and McCallister is a bonus from his perspective.
After almost a year as UUP leader Nesbitt has nothing to show in terms of progress or success. Key figures have left the party. Former supporters are briefing against him. His personal relationship with the media is appalling and he seems incapable of wooing them or winning them over. Opinion poll evidence indicates no bounce for the party. His performances on radio and television have been very poor for a man with a background in radio and television. Key figures in other parties (and across civic society) are openly critical of him.
He is helped by the fact that nobody else wants the job: that said he will not survive a bad Euro election next June—indeed he may not survive anyway, such is the level of disappointment in him at grassroots level. He needs a deal with the DUP. He needs it for the photo-opportunities with Peter Robinson and the prospect of DUP transfers to shore up UUP support at elections. He needs it to ensure the success of their candidate at the Euro election.
He needs it to boost the chances of winning a Westminster seat if the DUP agree to a free run. He needs a DUP deal because there is no other viable route or strategy by which the UUP will survive as a credible political/electoral force. That deal with the DUP is his big idea and quick fix. The DUP know it too: they also know that they have the UUP and its leader exactly where they want them.
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