I live in a town of coffee shops – too many of them, if there is such a thing; and, regularly, a new choice presents itself.
It becomes the place to visit, to check out, to compare with all the rest – and then you decide whether to stay or go.
Doug Beattie’s Ulster Unionist Party is the new coffee shop in our politics – looking for new customers whilst trying to hold on to those it already has.
According to one party source, that play for new votes comes with “significant risk”.
“He has to bring his traditional people with him,” the source commented – warning of the danger of “all eggs in the one basket”.
I am told that not everyone is on the Beattie “wavelength” on every issue. For some “the jury is out – a number of traditionalists uneasy”.
Another party source accepts there are concerns at what some will see as “a culture change – and perhaps a culture shock”, but he doesn’t overstate that.
“There’s no reason for people to feel uneasy,” he continues. “Doug is all about bringing people with him.”
This is a party in transition. It needs a revamp and that work is underway.
Will there be those with doubts? Yes.
That is the way of these things.
There will be difficult conversations – moments when Beattie will have to bare his teeth.
Think of the party’s journey and its leaders since the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998 – Trimble, Empey, Elliott, Nesbitt, Swann, Aiken and, now, Beattie.
There have been many different owners of the coffee shop, who have watched their customers go elsewhere.
Beattie – leader since May – has a last chance to make a go of the business, and is going about it with energy.
COLD COFFEE or NEW BREAD?
He will do it his way and he will know these things are determined by results.
The next election will decide whether it is cold coffee or new bread.
If opinion polls act as a kind of review, then, it is so far so good – numbers that suggest he is taking the business in the right direction.
Would he, if Sinn Fein emerges as largest party in the next Assembly election, and if the UUP was the largest unionist party, nominate for the post of deputy First Minister?
In a combative interview with Mark Carruthers on BBC Sunday Politics, he dismissed that question, saying he is not playing for second best.
In his party conference speech the day before, Beattie repeated: “There will be no pacts, there will be no standing aside, we will stand on our own two feet and promote our vision for a better Northern Ireland. We will not be defined by the past.”
He will know, of course, that in this place, history is never history.
I have discussed that past with him many times – in radio and television studios; chatted with him in the company of army veterans, and have heard the fears of a history rewritten.
We are on different pages, but we can have a conversation – agree and disagree.
The Past will always be in our politics and in our lives until we find a way out of it.
I still believe that is work for people outside of politics and outside of us – some international initiative.
We are seeing the new faces and hearing the new voices in Beattie’s party.
We are also watching a convulsion within unionism in this NI Centenary year – most noticeable inside the DUP, the party of three leaders in 2021, Foster, Poots and Donaldson.
That falling out, no matter how it is patched up, will make the next election a tougher fight.
Post-Brexit politics has given us the reality of the Protocol – a sea border that raises questions about the Union at a time when the ‘New Ireland’ conversation is getting louder.
The UUP can read us back to October 2019 and point to a chapter of statements warning of the consequences of that sea border; a deal that would place Northern Ireland on the window ledge of the Union.
The other unionist parties will find it difficult to score points against Beattie on this issue.
To borrow a phrase, and to tweak it a little, you can’t eat a Protocol.
While some are fixated on this issue (and what it means for the Union), others are trying to survive – keep their heads above water, put food on the table, keep the lights and the heat on, trying to breathe, trying to see beyond the pandemic when a major project will be the reshaping and rebuilding of our health service.
They are interested in a politics about people – not posturing.
At some point, the protocol will become yesterday’s news. For all the noise from here, the UK Government and the EU are the major players in this.
ORANGE and GREEN
Our politics has been, and is, changing. You see it in a sequence of election results stretching from 2017.
Those who think that we are just a story about Orange and Green, are missing the point and missing the people.
Things have changed – are changing. Old certainties long since gone.
If – and it is a big IF – but if it were to be achieved, ‘second best’ would be quite some result for Beattie in the next Assembly Election.
It would quieten the doubters – settle those who are ‘uneasy’.
There’ll be many coffees between now and the election results.