Find The Disillusioned Unionists

Find the disillusioned Unionists! That’s the blunt message controversial commentator, Dr John Coulter, urges the Ulster Unionist Party in his Fearless Flying Column today.

Ulster Unionists now need to focus mainly on persuading Protestants to back the party rather than pursing minority groups such as Catholic unionists and migrant workers. Sounds radical, but then the UUP’s New Unionism must appeal to Radical Moderates if the party is not to be swallowed alive politically by the DUP.

There can be no doubting that the liberal agenda of ‘Vote Mike, Get Colum’ has crashed and burned as the UUP’s attempt to steal the political clothes of the centrist Alliance Party hit the voters’ rocks harder than the ill-fated Titanic hit the iceberg.

I’m around Unionist politics long enough to recall a campaign by the UUP years ago to get real about Northern Ireland politics by appealing to Catholics, migrant workers and ethnic minorities.

That left many in the UUP at that time wondering - has the party which once championed the cause of a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people decided to finally mark its centenary by shifting lock, stock and its then single Commons seat to the position once occupied by the Liberal Home Rule movement in 1906?

Or was it more of a case Northern Protestants were so disillusioned with the seemingly rudderless Auld Unionist Party, its team would have to rely on a light green coalition of Catholics, eastern Europeans, and other ethnic minorities to get back into power? That didn’t work in 2006 because the DUP finally stole all the political clothes from the UUP.

Years later, the UUP also seemed to be abandoning its former Euro scepticism in favour of embracing the enlarged European Union. Then Brexit hit!

The bottom line is that the New Unionism of the Radical Moderates needs to win seats. In reality, the choice is simple for the UUP. For one of the longest periods in its history, it has party supremoes who are neither Northern Ireland Prime Minister nor a Commons MP. Its primary task is not to win back voters, but to get UUP candidates into Westminster.

The trouble is – which of the North’s constituencies can now be considered a safe UUP bet? Then again, given the DUP landslides in recent General Elections is there any such thing now as a safe UUP seat?

If the Northern Ireland Secretary of State called a snap Assembly election later this year, UUP insiders fear they could lose at least another four seats to the Foster camp. Is the jump, rather than slide to New Unionism, really a bid by the UUP to hijack what remains of the middle ground from the rapidly advancing Alliance Party.

Could North Down hold the key to any future UUP revival in its Commons fortunes, or is the DUP eyeing up yet another potential MP victory?

In the past, the retirement of Alliance’s North Down political ‘super gun’ Eileen Bell, the incredible demise of Bob McCartney’s UK Unionists, and the failure of former UUP dissident Peter Weir to repeat DUP victories in East and South Antrim by Sammy Wilson and Willy McCrea, supposedly meant the UUP was perfectly poised to regain a Commons stronghold. But that was then; what about now?

Some clever spin doctors will suggest Lady Sylvia will call it a day politically. Then in steps a UUP ‘big hitter’ and the UUP is back in business electorally (at this point, I awaken from my dream). Could the UUP do a deal with the DUP that it will stand aside in certain seats and allow the UUP a free run in North Down?

Is the UUP really telling us its once powerful radical Right faction has been laid to rest; that the tens of thousands of traditional rural Right-wing unionist grassroots voters have permanently been abandoned to the Foster camp?

  Has the UUP ever considered the view the DUP’s massive Westminster election victories were a tactical anti-Sinn Fein vote? Or is it the case the pro-Union electorate has decided there’s only room for a single Unionist Party? David Trimble and others have gone and in the meantime, the Foster camp has sat silent regarding progress.

In fact, the 2017 DUP resembles a 2002 UUP without the public infighting. Mrs Foster cannot continue forever, and are we looking at another ex-UUP personality leading the DUP?

If the Foster camp can indeed cut a deal with Sinn Fein before Santa comes, the DUP modernisers will need the help of Robin Swann’s UUP to stay in power at Stormont. With no Big Ian to lead them, the so-called fundamentalist Paisleyite Right – and a significant section of Right-wing UUP opinion – could they combine and rally to a new evangelical Christian standard?

In trying to capture the Catholic and immigrant vote year ago, the UUP set itself a Mount Everest-style ascent. With hindsight, would it not have been better if the UUP looked to its core vote of traditional Right of Centre Protestants and embarked on a political gentle dander up Slemish mountain instead?

The recent annual conference of the ruling Ulster Unionist Council has placed Robin Swann more firmly in the driving seat of the party. The votes, too, for the officer team have equally clearly rooted the party on the Centre Right position.

But the UUP leadership needs to ensure they do not make the same mistake as Trimble by allowing senior party figures too much room to make political statements which are not in line with the Centre Right (read Radical Moderate!) agenda.

Former UUP leaders Sir Reg Empey and Lord Trimble were both members of the once mighty Right-wing Vanguard movement. Its success as a movement was to galvanize working class and middle class unionist opinion as well as give the Protestant population constructive Right-wing leadership with a positive agenda.

All this was washed down with a large dose of internal discipline. Perhaps the UUP needs to remember the Vanguard roots when it comes to maintaining internal discipline in the UUP.

If the leadership doesn’t crack the whip, by the 2018 UUC AGM, they’ll find themselves in the uncomfortable position of facing challengers from the party’s still highly vocal liberal wing.

The mistakes of former leading liberals Terence O’Neill, James Chichester-Clarke and Brian Faulkner are still haunting the corridors of power in the UUP. UUP 2017 has the chance to exorcise them once and for all time. The Radical Moderates’ New Unionism is certainly a step in the right direction. Just remember the heritage and history of Ireland’s Radical Presbyterians.

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 
Follow John Coulter on Twitter  @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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