While there has been much talk of Unionist unity, given the DUP’s current tally of elected representatives and holding the balance of power at Westminster, conversations about forming a single Unionist Party are all but meaningless as the UUP has virtually nothing to offer the DUP.
In June’s Westminster election, the UUP suffered the same fate as the moderate Pro-Assembly Unionists in the October 1974 General Election when the Unionist Coalition of parties wiped the floor with Brian Faulkner’s pro-Sunningdale candidates.
The task of the UUP is two-fold focusing on policy and performance. Policy-wise, the UUP is paying the price for embarking on a five-year deadly flirtation with liberal secularism and abandoning its traditional voter bases of the Christian Churches, Loyal Orders, marching bands and Protestant working class.
The cancer of liberal secularism has left the UUP resembling the ecumenical Presbyterian wing of the centrist Alliance Party. Those UUP members and elected representatives who espouse the cause of same sex marriage, pro-abortion and champion the ideals of so-called ‘liberal unionism’ would be far better jumping ship from the UUP and joining their natural political home in Alliance.
In terms of realistic policies which could position the UUP for a closer accommodation with the DUP, the party must rebrand itself as a clear Centre Right movement more akin to the Ulster Unionism espoused by the late Jim Molyneaux in the days when the party was dominated by pressure groups, such as the Right-wing Ulster Monday Club.
The bitter medicine which the UUP must swallow is that the liberal secularist agenda has now damaged the party irreparably. It must end the stupidity of trying to compete with Alliance for some mythical centre ground utopia, and begin the process of preparing for an eventual merger with the DUP. The UUP must be purged of the cancer of anti-Christian secularism which has polluted the party’s political heart and soul over the past half-decade.
The clap-trap trendy atheism must be eradicated from party policy and, like the DUP, the UUP must provide clear Christian leadership to its traditional Church vote through a definite policy of social conservatism.
Alternatively, if the party hierarchy maintains that liberal secularism will be the policy of the UUP, then sadly anyone who calls themselves a Christian – especially a born again believer - will have no other alternative than to quit the UUP and formally seek political refuge in the DUP. Fundamentally, there is no room for yet another pro-Union party. Unionist unity is of the essence.
While a restoration of the Stormont institutions will be a political life-saver for the UUP with only 10 MLAs to bargain with, the last thing the party needs is another Assembly poll. If the May 2017 Westminster outcome was replicated in a Stormont poll, the UUP will be no better off than the TUV or People Before Profit Alliance.
With the DUP holding the high ground in terms of seats and influence, the UUP has only one bargaining chip – to lobby the DUP to get a return to the Good Friday Agreement deal of 1998 that the largest designation – unionist or nationalist – could lay claim to the First Minister’s post.
This vital negotiating position was given away by the DUP at the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 when the First Minister’s post went to the largest party. The March 2017 Stormont poll has left Sinn Fein breathing down the necks of the DUP.
If, as part of the new cosy Tory-DUP pact at Westminster, the DUP could persuade Prime Minister Theresa May to introduce legislation heralding a return of the largest designation status to the office and First and deputy First Minister, it would guarantee that the UUP would be part of a Unionist Coalition in any future Assembly poll.
Another vital card which the UUP can play is the sterling constituency work which its network of remaining UUP councillors have on the ground. Using the ethos of ‘Putting People First’, the party councillors can focus on bread and butter issues as they affect constituents in their daily lives. The UUP will be rebuilt in preparation and eventual merger with the DUP from the ground up, not the leadership down.
The dose of realism which the UUP must swallow is that it cannot afford to stand still and hope the tens of thousands of unionist voters it has lost to the DUP will magically return to the UUP fold.
The unionist electorate have used their votes to send a clear message that there can only be one pro-Union party of any significance in Northern Ireland, just as Irish nationalism has completed the mirror image in the Catholic community – there can only be one nationalist party, Sinn Fein.
Such is the depth of the political malaise which has currently gripped the UUP that the twin-track strategy of re-engaging with its traditional voter base and ‘upping’ its councillor constituency profile must be implemented as soon as possible.
Failure to do so will only see the UUP join the long list of pro-Union parties in that historical dustbin, such as the Vanguard Unionist Party, Ulster Popular Unionist Party, UK Unionist Party, UPNI, Northern Ireland Unionist Party, United Unionist Assembly Party to name but a few. Has the penny dropped yet?
- Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter