I’m not going to write anything about the current discussions at Hillsborough until something emerges – and even when something does, it’s likely to be a holding operation. Rather, I want to focus on these secret Tory-Unionist talks two Sundays back.
There were two things that immediately struck me about the Hatfield House talks. One was to ask, “Why on earth would the Tories and Unionists hold a top-secret summit in a pub on the Ormeau Road?” Then I realised the reference was in fact to Lord Cranborne’s stately pile. The second thing was that it was a bit cheeky of the DUP to tell the Shinners they wanted a break from the policing and justice negotiations, on the grounds that they didn’t negotiate on the Sabbath, only to head off to a get-together with Reg Empey and Owen Paterson.
Little detail has emerged from the Hatfield talks except that electoral matters were discussed. This would appear to have three dimensions – an electoral arrangement to maximise the number of unionist MPs returned to Westminster; an arrangement to support the Tories in the event of a close or inconclusive result at the general election; and some sort of wheeze to prevent Martin McGuinness becoming first minister after the next Stormont election. But there’s some unpicking to be done here in terms of what’s in it for Peter, what’s in it for Reggie, and what’s in it for Dave.
To begin with Rankin’ Dave Cameron, his reasoning is absurdly transparent. With the polls pointing to either a hung parliament or a slim Tory majority, what he wants is to gain the assured votes of ten or so unionist MPs. This is of a piece with his thinking on UCUNF in the first place, which as far as I could see had more to do with Scotland than the north – the big selling point being the rash pledge to run eighteen Forza Nuova candidates over here, thus underlining his dispositional unionism with a low-overhead gesture of his pan-UK credentials. It all confirms my view of Rankin’ Dave as a perishing lightweight, and not just because of the question of whether he can be an honest broker in government, something that an attempt to recreate the UUUC would naturally undermine – he should really go and have a talk with John Major about what it’s like to have to rely on unionist votes. Any Tory grandee with a bit of sense could have told him that getting mixed up with the Unionist Party would be more trouble than it was worth. Since Andrew Bonar Law stood with Carson a century ago and incited armed insurrection against the elected British government, the Unionists have always meant trouble.
Peter’s motivation is easy to understand. His primary concern is Jim Allister, his secondary concern is to spook the Shinners. If he manages to get an electoral pact, well and good – such a pact would work to the DUP’s advantage given its incumbency advantage, higher-quality cadre and the fact that it can easily sacrifice candidacies in South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone, seats the DUP wasn’t going to win anyway; if he doesn’t… well, he’s no worse off that he was to begin with, and he knows that any raising of the “unionist unity” banner, with him managing to inveigle Reggie into discussions on the matter, raises a fatal question mark over the logic behind the UCUNF boondoggle. This proves once again that Peter is smarter than Reggie, or indeed Dave.
Which brings me to the question of what the fuck Reg Empey thinks he’s doing. I think you have to look at this in terms of the schizophrenic strategies pursued by the OUP in recent years. At Stormont, they’ve alternated between hankering after the old coalition of the centre – that is to say themselves, the SDLP and Alliance, with the Dupes and Shinners relegated back to the margins – by forging a close working relationship with the SDLP; and on the other hand, flirting with Jim Allister and trying without much success to outflank the DUP on the right.
This all has to do with the confusion of a party that used to be a monolithic catch-all party for Prods, trying to reinvent itself in an environment where the DUP has outpaced it. Hence the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, which may be a dopey idea, but that’s not to be scorned in a party that’s been bereft of ideas for a very long time – and indeed, never used to need them.
The ever readable Turgon had some interesting thoughts on this over on Slugger:
The battle between the UUP and DUP has been going on for years. It must be remembered that forty years ago Dr. Paisley was a marginal figure and when the unionist monolith began to fracture the likes of Bill Craig were actually much more senior and significant figures within unionism than the Big Man. However, the DUP prospered more than any of the other pretenders to the UUP throne of lead unionist party. Any attempt by the UUP to move “leftwards” (as an aside I find the designation of hard line unionism as right wing and its opposite left wing irritating and inaccurate but it is a useful shorthand) resulted in segments of unionism moving towards the DUP or else the UUP splitting and moving back rightwards.
Hence, I would argue, Jim Allister. As long as unionist politics exists there will be a DUP or something like it – indeed, the TUV now is more or less a functional equivalent of the DUP as it was forty years ago.
Although comparisons with Nelson are spectacularly inapt, the unionist leader who managed to do a Battle of the Nile on the DUP, was of course Jim Molyneaux. Molyneaux used to say that he had contained Dr. Paisley because he had “out righted” him. That was not, however, entirely accurate; rather what Molyneaux achieved was to have a broad church party which managed simultaneously to be more right wing than the DUP (e.g. Willie Ross) but had many members much more liberal to hoover up the more moderate unionist vote (Ken Maginnis). It also appealed to the Orange vote (Rev. Martin Smith) and had proper fundamentalists (Nelson McCausland); yet had a few Catholics (John Gorman); was right wing (Enoch Powell) and yet socialist (Chris McGimpsey) and even with working class roots (Harold McCusker). This eclectic mix allowed Molyneaux to offer a party which had members who could resonate with practically all unionists and for a significant time he reaped the electorate rewards, steadily eroding the DUP vote in all save the European elections where Dr. Paisley gained a huge personality vote.
Old Lemonsucker was a smarter man than he was given credit for, and understood better than anyone since Brookeborough the nature of leadership in unionism. Brookeborough, you’ll recall, was prime minister for twenty years, during which time his usual routine was to spend one morning a week at Stormont dealing with correspondence, and the rest of his time hunting foxes down in Fermanagh. Jim Molyneaux famously once issued a statement to say that he wouldn’t be issuing any more statements for the foreseeable future. That’s why he could hold his anarchic party together, while the more dynamic David Trimble couldn’t.
Since that the UUP have largely tried to regain their position by being more moderate than the DUP and have gone on a long, largely fruitless quest for that mythical beast: the garden centre Prod along with the apparently equally unicorn like unionist Catholic. By the tie up with the Conservatives they seem to think that they had created a formula which would attract both sorts of unicorn and tame them to become the white chargers they needed to reclaim their rightful place as lead unionist party. To be fair they have gained some Catholic members and increased their profile. However, at their first outing in the European election, they owed their relative defeat of the DUP more to the TUV’s slicing off approaching a half of the DUP’s vote than to any huge increase in their own support. The ogres of the TUV had had more effect on the victory than the unicorns.
Well, neither of these creatures is entirely mythical, and UCUNF did bring a few of them out of the woodwork, as well as energising the OUP’s Toryboy wing, who have seized on the idea of pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism with a link to Cameron as the magic formula that would outflank the Dupes while somehow persuading nationalists to become unionists. But there’s also the call of the jungle drums, which is where the unionist unity drive comes in. Reggie’s problem is that these two impulses are contradictory.
You see this with the candidacy problems. The New Force has a tortuous candidate selection process; but beyond that, the Unionist part thereof has still not sorted out its selections, thanks largely to the situation in North Down where Lady Sylvia is not for UCUNFing. As a result, the tiny Ulster Tories have got utterly pissed off at the Unionists’ failure, a few months before an election, to have candidates in place. Their mood has not been improved by this dalliance with the DUP, after they’d been assured by both Dave and Reggie that UCUNF would be contesting all eighteen seats here. So now we’ve seen the withdrawal of three Tory candidates, two of whom – Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson – are Catholic. Reggie swears blind that he’s not shafting Catholic Tories for the sake of a pan-Prod electoral stitch-up, but the Hatfield talks don’t provide the best backdrop.
There is another factor, that of UCUNF’s supposed appeal to the Garden Centre Prod and the Catholic Unionist. You may object that, to the extent that these creatures exist, most of them are in the Alliance Party, but that’s not the point. The point is that they have some significance for candidate selection, and the latter have a disproportionate significance. Peter McCann, the Catholic Tory from west Belfast, was a totemic figure for UCUNF not because he was going to win over loads of Catholics to the unionist cause; his role was to be our local analogue to Shaun Bailey, the black Tory who’s standing in Hammersmith. Now, black Londoners remain in their huge majority loyal to Labour, and most of them seem to regard Shaun Bailey as a chancer on the make, but Shaun isn’t being heavily promoted for the benefit of black Londoners. If he wins a few over, well and good, but Shaun has to be put in the context of Cameron’s detoxification of the Tory brand. Thus, Shaun is being targeted at white middle-class Londoners of liberal disposition who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more; Peter McCann could have appealed to Garden Centre Prods who otherwise would abstain or vote Alliance, as a reassurance that UCUNF wasn’t sectarian.
It goes further than that, of course. Word is circulating that Reggie is headhunting Trevor Ringland to stand in East Belfast, and TV’s Mike Nesbitt to stand in Strangford. These boys, should they run, would be aimed squarely at the Garden Centre Prod vote; but they would be good candidates for a non-sectarian, middle-of-the-road politic, and probably wouldn’t be interested in anything that looks even vaguely like an exercise in sectarian headcounting. And then, look at Sylvia Hermon herself. She’s presentable, articulate, moderate in her politics and a transparently decent human being – she also has the advantage of being a Chief Constable’s widow in a constituency full of cops who served under Sir Jack. She’d actually be an ideal “civic unionist” candidate, if it wasn’t for her unfortunate refusal to stand as a Tory under any circumstances. Then again, she’d be equally plausible as an Alliance candidate, and even as an independent should certainly not be written off.
Beyond the implications for the OUP, there’s a broader peace process implication. If your strategy is based on the coalition of the centre, or voluntary coalition (and we know which party that’s designed to exclude), you need a cross-community partner. Specifically, you need a substantial SDLP. Now, the SDLP as is may be beyond help, but you should be wary of taking steps that actually hammer more nails into its coffin. The first effect of a unionist electoral pact would be to knock out Alasdair McDonnell, the man best placed to revive the SDLP. Secondly, even if you manage to knock out Michelle Gildernew – and, given her popularity with Fermanagh farmers, that’s no certainty – in the process Michelle would squeeze the SDLP in Fermanagh/South Tyrone into oblivion, with a likely knock-on effect for neighbouring constituencies. More generally, anything that looks like a revival of UUUC politics is a huge incentive to nationalists to rally behind the party that promises to most aggressively represent Catholic rights – and that ain’t the SDLP. What price a coalition of the centre, if the SDLP is too enfeebled to be of any use?
Finally, the hard fact is that seats at Stormont are more important by far than seats at Westminster. The big prize is a unionist bloc at Stormont that would prevent Marty being elected first minister – which is entirely symbolic in terms of the actual joint powers of the OFMDFM. Then again, if I read the d’Hondt system correctly, that may actually cost unionism in terms of Executive ministers, and McGuinness would still hold a position in the joint presidency that meant the FM couldn’t do anything without his consent.
Did I say Peter was smarter than Reggie? It could be that Reggie, in his chasing after short-term tactical advantage, is being too clever for his own good.