Well, the launch of the Programme for Government was a bit of a damp squib. The most interesting thing from my point of view was the extraordinarily prominent role played by the finance minister. This would seem to bear out the observation somebody made on Slugger a little while back that Robbo seems to see himself as the Stormont Executive’s prime minister, while the Chuckle Brothers are little more than a ceremonial joint presidency.
I was awaiting the list of proposed bills in the hope that there would be a few big ideas in there to catch the public’s imagination. Maybe the borough of Castlereagh would be renamed Robinson City. Maybe there would be a proposal to erect a 30-metre statue of Peter Robinson on the hill behind the Dundonald Ice Bowl. Maybe, just to annoy nationalists, Pootsie would finance a translation of Remembrance of Times Past into Ulster Scots. But no, the final list turned out to be pedestrian stuff.
I was however struck, on turning on Hearts and Minds last night, halfway through as usual, to hear Sir Reg Empey declaiming that he wasn’t proposing to set up a Stalinist party. This had me scratching my head. Were the Official Unionists dabbling in Marxism-Leninism? Was this a subtle dig at Senator Harris? What could be the meaning of this?
It transpired that Reggie was talking about his plans to modernise the OUP’s structures, making it a bit more like a real political party and a bit less like a nineteenth-century political club. And you can’t help feeling a little sympathy for the man. The baroque structures of the Unionist Party are one of the weirdest parts of our local landscape, and the antiquarian in me says it’ll be a pity to lose them.
In some ways, the OUP resembles the British Tories before William Hague (remember him?) went on a “modernisation” spree some years ago. There is no central membership list. The party executive is top-heavy with worthies holding honorary positions, and has no real power. The annual conference makes no policy decisions. The eighteen constituency associations are pretty much independent bodies, and guard their independence jealously.
But I know of no analogue in politics to the Ulster Unionist Council. This bizarre setup is often described by lazy journos as the party’s policy-making body, but it’s far too unwieldy (there used to be well over a thousand delegates) to play that role. The delegates, who tend to be elderly and maybe not entirely representative, come en bloc from the constituency parties, the Orange Order and various federated entities. They don’t even have to be party members – in fact, there is notoriously no proper credentials check and it’s an open secret that DUP members used to get themselves delegated to the UUC by their Orange districts, just to make mischief. It all makes Tower Hamlets Respect look like a model of professional organisation.
And yet, this club of grumpy old men operates as the sovereign body of the Unionist Party, and it is the UUC that Reggie will have to win over, with a two-thirds majority required to change party structures. I don’t envy him. I used to hear republican comrades saying that they wished they had something like the UUC to hold their leaders to account, but the UUC’s version of death by a thousand cuts has been the despair of more than one party leader. Believe it or not, David Trimble used to be quite the jolly larrikin. After a couple of hairy UUCs, he had turned into King Lear.
I hope for his sake that Reggie knows what he’s doing. Trying to talk the UUC into modernisation is the political equivalent of an extreme sport. And Reggie may be a smart guy, but the UUC delegates weren’t born yesterday. Some of them weren’t even born last century. A Stalinist party? If you could revive Uncle Joe, he might be just the man for the job.