Tonight we’re going to pose a serious, high-minded question for all of you serious, high-minded political scientists out there. The question is this: do the Ulster Unionist Party have any fucking cop on at all?
Regular readers will realise that we’re about to take another trip into the wacky world of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. And yea, it is so – but the question is a genuine one. And it may also be fairly aimed at Rankin’ Dave Cameron, who thought allying with the Unionist Party was a good idea in the first place. If David Trimble could con him into the UCUNF boondoggle, perhaps Trimble will next try to sell him a bridge. Perhaps he already has.
Anyway, you know the basic outlines of the story. David Cameron and Reg Empey sign an electoral pact, which gives Cameron a ready-made party in the north – at least one more substantial than the actually existing Ulster Tories, whose 25 years of hard work have enabled them to accumulate around 250 members and scarcely more votes – while Reggie gets a bit of Ashcroft money and a ready-made narrative of pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism, something to fire up his grassroots (or at least the unionist blogosphere) and distinguish his party from the dominant DUP. However, Reggie and his new mate “Dave” have had a few problems along the way, illustrated by candidate selection, arising both from the pact itself and from Reggie’s difficulty in sticking to the pact – he has had a tendency to let himself be distracted by shiny new electoral pacts, whether with the DUP or even (putatively) with Jim Allister’s Prodiban. Out of our eighteen constituencies, no less than three can give us telling case studies.
North Down: the Lady’s not for UCUNFing
Reggie went into the UCUNF pact with one (1) incumbent MP. That was Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. She’s been a capable MP and is popular well beyond the ranks of the Unionist Party; she also had a totemic standing within the party as the woman who had kept a UUP toehold at Westminster when the Dupes were sweeping all before them, and who had defeated Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney in so doing.
If you were looking for a candidate who exemplifies what civic unionism might be – non-sectarian, moderate, outward-looking – you might think Sylvia was the ideal candidate. But you’d be wrong, because, unfortunately for Reggie, Sylvia is a stalwart Labour supporter and refused to stand as a Tory candidate under any circumstances. And while Reggie could easily write off his party’s socialist wing (Roy Garland and Chris McGimpsey) as yesterday’s men who had nowhere else to go, Sylvia’s position and popularity would be more of an obstacle. Despite pressure from the UUP’s Toryboy wing, who’ve been agitating for years to have Sylvia driv out of the party, Reggie played the long game – or procrastinated, if you prefer. This only made the Toryboy element crazier, while Sylvia treated her leader with barely-concealed contempt. During last year’s party conference, not only did she not bother to attend but she ostentatiously allowed herself to be photographed doing something much more important – walking her dogs.
But time waits for no man, and eventually Reggie had to get off the pot. And so it is that Sylvia has departed the party, followed by the North Down constituency chairman and her proxy in the Assembly, Major Alan McFarland (they do love their titles, the North Down voters), both of them decrying the whole UCUNF project as they walked out the door. Sylvia plans to run as an independent; the UCUNF nomination has gone to the affable if lightweight Tory contender, Ian “Not Paisley” Parsley, who was European candidate for the Alliance Party less than a year ago. Whether the depleted and demoralised North Down UUA will break its collective back for Parsley remains to be seen; meanwhile, the DUP, with their unerring sense for a chance to rub Reggie’s nose in it, are standing down in Sylvia’s favour. This observer is willing to have a small flutter on Sylvia beating the crap out of young Parsley on polling day.
The net result is that Reggie has not only deprived himself of his sole sitting MP for a mess of pottage called UCUNF, but he’s managed to look weak and indecisive for putting it off so long. The funny thing is that Fred Cobain, an unreconstructed Labour Unionist, has been given the UCUNF nomination in North Belfast – but then, Fred isn’t going to win.
South Antrim: the bed and breakfast man
We covered this one recently. Basically, the UCUNF selection process called for both component parties to select a candidate, both of whom would then go before a joint committee which would decide which one got to represent the Forza Nuova on the ballot paper. It was a complex and tortuous process, but one which (we were told) would weed out obvious wingnuts, and David McNarry. This would be especially important in South Antrim, the party’s number one target constituency and something of a bellwether. For many years the area was represented by veteran UUP man Clifford Forsythe; on Clifford’s death in 2000, the by-election was narrowly won by the DUP’s Rev William McCrea; in the 2001 general election McCrea was narrowly edged out by the UUP’s David Burnside; in the 2005 DUP landslide McCrea won again, but again only narrowly.
So, something of a cockpit seat, and, given the TUV insurgency and the local unpopularity of Singing Willie, one that should be well within UCUNF’s grasp. But then you factor in candidate selection.
In the UUP selection process, Antrim mayor Adrian Watson was the runaway winner with around 90% of party votes. Antrim unionists love their mayor; the guy has a bit of dynamism about him; and, for what it’s worth, he’s very popular with the flute band community in the Antrim area. The problem is that he’s also the proprietor of a bed and breakfast. And, in connection with that, a few years back he was talking on the wireless to Stephen Nolan and happened to mention that he wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of having gay couples staying the night.
Well, that rang alarm bells with the Tories, who have been frenetically courting the pink vote, and who promptly vetoed Watson – they couldn’t have a candidate with such unfashionable views on Teh Gayz, although his anti-Irish and anti-Traveller views apparently weren’t problematic. What muddied the waters even further was Chris Grayling’s musings on the same subject. (Chekov, in his role as the UUP’s resident Chief Wiggum, argued that the two cases were completely different because Watson had a history of making gormless outbursts and Grayling… um…) But defenestrating Watson carried with it some dangers, such as having to run an anonymous Tory candidate, or the possibility of a thoroughly pissed-off Watson running as an independent. Not what you’d consider ideal in your most realistic target seat.
This is the background to Reggie finally growing a pair and volunteering to take on Singing Willie himself. This is a high-risk strategy for Reggie – if he doesn’t win, that’s the end of his leadership. Not to mention that Reggie himself may have, well, not entirely PC opinions on the bed and breakfast question. It would be a terrible pity if, say, Gay Times were to find out and to give Cameron a hard time about it.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone: the ground zero of the sectarian headcount
One of the conditions of the UCUNF pact was the pledge to stand candidates in all eighteen constituencies. The theory behind this is that everybody in the north should have an opportunity to vote for the next UK government. But that cuts little ice down in Fermanagh, where the sectarian jungle drums have been beating loudly. Since 2001, the abstentionist MP for the area has been Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew; but, though it’s a nationalist-majority seat, unionists (resting on a Protestant population of around 45%) have held it in the past with a split nationalist vote. (And vice versa. As long as both unionist parties ran candidates, Michelle would coast back in.) Such is the sectarian polarisation down in FST that this is where the pressure for a “unionist unity” (that is, pan-Prod) candidate was always going to be strongest. As a result, we’ve had several months of rather wearying megaphone diplomacy between the UUP’s Tom Elliott and the DUP’s Arlene Foster, each challenging the other to stand down for the greater good.
And in the background, the search for a neutral Prod to carry the challenge. First there was an attempt to conscript retired RUC detective Norman Baxter, but Norman declared that, while he would be interested in being a cross-community candidate, he had no interest in being a pan-Prod one. Finally, though, they have got their saviour in the shape of recently retired Fermanagh Council chief executive Rodney Connor, who will run as an independent but take the Tory whip if elected. This in itself isn’t a foregone conclusion – he will need to mobilise a solid bloc of unionist voters while hoping that SDLP-voting Catholics don’t desert their party and rally behind Michelle Gildernew.
What’s important about this is that, despite the figleaf of Rodney Connor promising to take the Tory whip, this makes a liar of David Cameron. It is explicitly a sectarian stitch-up – exactly the sort of thing UCUNF was supposed to be a break from, hence the eighteen-candidate pledge. A couple of Tories and Unionists have smelt a rat, though Chief Wiggum is undeterred – he simply wants Connor to play up his cross-community credentials so as to reassure SDLP-voting Catholics into believing that Connor isn’t the pan-Prod candidate, even though that’s exactly what he is. Evidently the theory is that Fermanagh nationalists are too thick to spot a sectarian stitch-up when they see one, and choose to back their own “unity” candidate no matter whether the SDLP stays in the running.
Interesting, too, was the Tory statement on FST, which described the constituency as being deprived of “democratic representation” – which evinces not a little contempt for the democratic choice of the 18,000 people who voted for Michelle Gildernew, not to mention that anyone who’s had contact with our hyperactive agriculture minister could hardly accuse her of not bothering to represent her constituents. The Tories further argued that this was the only one of the five abstentionist-held constituencies where a pact could alter the outcome – in other words, in West Belfast, West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry/Armagh there just weren’t enough Prods to win. This demonstrates a complete buying into the logic of Prod-counting, and makes a nonsense of the logic of UCUNF.
And now, it’s spreading. Mark Devenport reports that the Orange Order and Royal Black Preceptory in Sandy Row have delivered an ultimatum to Reggie, the gist of which is that if he doesn’t endorse a pan-Prod candidate in South Belfast they will organise a boycott of UCUNF standard-bearer Paula Bradshaw, while the candidate herself is buckling. And this is all about unseating the non-abstentionist, anti-republican, but still inconveniently Catholic, Alasdair McDonnell. David Cameron has walked right into the sectarian morass of Norn Iron politics, and he only has himself to blame.
If you can’t wait for more election coverage here, there’s plenty in the proper media. I draw your attention in particular to Newt on the plus ça change theme; Chris on the dilemmas facing Margaret Ritchie; and Ben Lowry has a fascinating piece on differential turnout.