So, the Official Unionist conference was on at the weekend, and I know readers will be agog to hear about it. This was the second party conference since the Forza Nuova lash-up with the Tories was agreed, and of course the big initiative was at the centre of things. Last year, Rankin’ Dave Cameron himself turned up; this year’s guest speaker was William Jefferson Hague, which might seem like a bit of a come-down, but then this is a party that’s used to the devastating charisma of Michael McGimpsey.
There’s no doubt about it, the UUs are in better spirits than they’ve been for some time. There are those who have doubts about the UCUNF boondoggle – and we’ll get onto some of those momentarily – but at least pan-UK unionism is an idea, and that’s not insignificant for a party that has lacked any vaguely coherent ideas for a very long time. Sir Reggie’s reorganisation, shifting power from the constituencies to the centre, makes them look more like an actual party and not quite so much like a disorganised rabble. The Tory connection brings some material resources, and a connection to what looks like a winning team on its way to government. Perhaps most importantly, there’s Jim Nicholson’s achievement in outpolling the DUP at the European election. Well, I say Jim’s achievement; his main achievement was to hold his own while Jim Allister took the DUP to the cleaners, but then the Unionist Party can go a long way on schadenfreude at the DUP’s travails.
There’s also the possibility that the Prodiban assault on the DUP may mean them picking up a couple of Westminster seats next year, even if they don’t significantly increase their vote. South Antrim could be interesting – Singing Willie has never been popular there, not least because of his unwillingness to leave Magherafelt and actually set foot in South Antrim. Grumpy Gregory is not totally secure in East Derry. And a face-off in Upper Bann between gospel-singing DUP incumbent David Simpson, and Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry for the Official Unionists, could be better than X Factor.
Not that Reggie is getting things all his own way. The UUs’ Labour-oriented personalities are still not very gruntled at all this palling around with Cameron – the party’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, didn’t bother turning up for the second year in a row, while veteran Belfast councillor Fred Cobain did attend, but cleared off halfway through to go to the Crusaders match. And following the conference, there’s been yet another broadside from the Unionist Party’s socialist wing (essentially Roy Garland and Chris McGimpsey). Their open letter is reproduced in full over on Slugger, but here are the highlights.
Throughout its history the UUP has been a party which had the foresight and the commitment to fend off Irish independence, to form the Government of Northern Ireland, and to keep Northern Ireland running over half a century, including the challenging period of the Second World War. Today it appears that the UUP does not have the vision to see across to the far side of the Albertbridge Road.
The new arrangement is a great deal for the Conservatives.
They tried and failed to gain support here over a decade ago. In the 1992 General Election they received 5.7% of the popular vote. Their last outing was in the 1993 Local Government Elections when 9437 brave souls gave the Conservatives their First Preference Votes.
Under this new dispensation the UUP leadership are offering the Tories a Northern Ireland wide organisation, tens of thousands of loyal voters, around 150 councillors, over 20 MLAs and two seats at the Executive table at Stormont.
Bearing in mind the chronic feebleness of the Ulster Tories, there’s something to that, if you look at things on the Norn Iron rather than UK scale. Reggie would no doubt urge sceptics to look at the big picture. And, while Cameron and Hague are dispositional unionists, there’s a pragmatic argument for acquiring a regional affiliate at little cost. I also suspect Cameron is interested in the Unionists not merely for their own sake, but also in terms of what might happen in Scotland.
What does our Party receive in return? At one Executive Committee meeting we were assured that we would have two seats at the Cabinet table in any new Tory administration.
Assuming Cameron follows through on this, I would hazard a guess that David Trimble would be a safe bet for one of those. For the other, it depends whether the Unionists can elect any MPs. For all we know, this arrangement could mean Flash Harry sitting in the Cabinet. Or, if worst comes to worst, there’s always Jim Molyneaux, who I’m sure would be willing to serve despite being 175 years old.
The UUP had been members of the European Peoples’ Party for all of Jim Nicholson’s European career.
It was a grouping he was happy with and it had treated him and the UUP well – making him one of its three Quaestors. However, David Cameron did not favour the EPP and because Jim had to take the Tory whip he had to leave and join another more right wing group replete with some fairly dodgy eastern European MEPs.
There’ll be no taking the march past of the Latvian SS veterans for Reggie, then.
In addition,we are now approaching a General Election wherein our candidates have to be jointly selected by the handful of Northern Ireland Tories. Some constituencies have been told that they must select Tories irrespective of the wishes of the local activists. Others have been told to delay selection meetings until secret discussions have been undertaken with London. Never in the history of the UUP have we submitted to another party having the final say as to who we should run for election.
Considering the relative weight of the two parties, it is a bit of a scud, right enough.
Historically the Ulster Unionist Party was a uniting force within the pro-British community. Irrespective of your national politics you could be an Ulster Unionist. Left and Right could sit together in the same branch. Even when our MPs took the Tory whip the party remained a uniting force within Ulster.
That’s right, historically it was a catch-all party for Prods. The weakness of this argument, of course, is that since its eclipse by the DUP it can’t hope to regain its status as a catch-all party, and must find some distinctive identity beyond “We’re the unionist party that isn’t the DUP.” Reggie understands the question – whether he has the right answer is another matter.
Will those working class constituencies which have always returned Ulster Unionists still do so once it becomes clear that the Ulster Unionists have become little more than the eccentric old maiden aunt who lives in David Cameron’s house but to whom no one pays a blind bit of notice.
Ouch! Actually, that reference to the working class raises a whole other train of thought about the sociology of unionism, but that would take us so far afield it’ll have to wait for another post.
Perhaps you, Sir Reg, and the rest of the leadership should remember the advice given to Edward Carson when he followed a similar road. “Be careful Edward, the Tories have never adopted a cause yet but they have betrayed it in the end.”
You don’t have to go as far back as Carson. You only have to ask which party was in government at Westminster in 1972 when Stormont was prorogued. David Cameron may be a dispositional unionist, but are we to believe that, if Washington pressures him to give some concession to Gerry, he’s going to jeopardise his relationship with the Americans for the sake of Reg Empey’s feelings? Garland has been especially insistent on this point, arguing that the Unionists simply can’t rely on the Tories to stand up for Norn Iron – the Unionists would have to do the standing up for themselves.
But then again, these malcontents are yesterday’s men to some extent, of an older generation, representing a tradition of Labour Unionism that’s in danger of extinction. They don’t have an alternative vehicle to hand; they have nowhere else to go but home, and, whatever their ability to stir the pot in their associations, Reggie can probably afford to ignore them.
What he can’t afford to ignore for much longer is the Sylvia problem in North Down. The incumbent MP has made it clear that she won’t stand on a Tory ticket under any circumstances. The North Down Tories have selected the affable but lightweight Ian Parsley, despite him having been in the Alliance Party only five minutes ago. The Unionist Association hasn’t selected a candidate. It’s a tricky little quandary for Reggie. Complicating things is North Down’s long-established preference for quirky independent politics, and in particular UU defectors – first the late Jim Kilfedder, then Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney. Lady Sylvia is so popular with the housewives of North Down as to be virtually bulletproof, with or without her party. And a party in the fragile condition of the Unionists will have to think very carefully about whether it wants to dispense with one of its most capable representatives, when it doesn’t even have a credible replacement lined up.
I’ve said before that the Tories would find the Unionists more trouble than they were worth. When Cameron went in for his rhetorical flourish about the Tories fighting every constituency in the UK, did he have any idea what he was letting himself in for?