Big Heid Coont ’11: why the UUP is banjaxed

They aren’t the only ones in this situation, of course. We may begin by noting, parenthetically, that the TUV is also banjaxed.

Yes, Jim Allister and his merry band continue to disappoint. From Jim’s 66,000 votes at the Euro election two years ago, to the 26,000 the TUV polled in last year’s Westminster election, to the 16,000 polled for Stormont last week, this looks very much like diminishing returns having set in. True, Jim is in the Assembly (returned under quota on the last count in North Antrim), but with an Assembly party of one, plus a mere six councillors to back him up… well, one gets a profound sense of Bob McCartney redux. No wonder Walter Millar was moved to publicly speculate on whether the TUV even had a future; and we suspect Sunny Jim will shortly be having a painful interview with the boys who fund the TUV, and who will at some point be expecting some bang for their buck.

More on this from Turgon, but we may note in the meantime that there is in fact quite a large constituency of hardline unionists out there, particularly west of the Bann. But they aren’t supporting the TUV, so who might they be supporting?

An’ sae Ah gie yis Tractor Tam:

We have in the past noticed that border unionism is a very different beast indeed from its greater Belfast counterpart, and nowhere more so than in Fermanagh, which is like a whole wee country by itself. Certainly, about this time some urban UUP types will be scratching their heads at a party leader who resembles nothing so much as Harry West stepping out of a time-travelling DeLorean.

But first, let us consider just what a shocker this election has been for what was our ruling party for fifty years. Taking the Assembly first, a decline from eighteen seats to sixteen doesn’t look great, especially as that will probably cost the party one of its two ministries. But that scoreline is deceptively flattering in a couple of ways. One is the two gains the party largely fluked, with a very narrow win for Big Ross Hussey in West Tyrone, and a second seat in Strangford achieved by boundary changes that disadvantaged the DUP coupled with the continued underperformance of Strangford’s nationalist vote. But set that against the party’s losses: chief whip Fred Cobain gone in North Belfast, the party’s second seat gone in what should be the heartland of North Down, a seat lost to Sinn Féin in East Antrim, and then the horrible self-inflicted wound in East Derry, where the constituency association deselected popular sitting MLA David McClarty, who then went on to win the seat as an independent, polling more votes than the two official UUP candidates combined.

Moreover, there’s little comfort in the detail. Only three candidates (leader Tom Elliott, minister Danny Kennedy and wannabe leader Basil McCrea) elected on the first count. A whole wheen of candidates scraping in on very late counts, including people like Roy Beggs, health minister Michael McGimpsey, David McNarry and Leslie Cree who should not by any stretch of the imagination be vulnerable. Two seats out of 24 in Belfast, and both of those were a stretch. Only two constituencies (Strangford and Upper Bann, and those two only barely) where the party could take a second seat. And nowhere – literally no constituency – where the UUP beat the DUP on first preferences. Below 10% in East Belfast; only just above it in North Down. This is a party with no margin for further slippage.

There’s a political point here and a sociological-geographical point. Firstly, it’s important to get rid of the preconception that the UUP is the moderate party and the DUP the hardline party. That may have been true a decade ago; today, in terms at least of the dominant factions in both parties, it’s the other way round. And in fact border unionism has never been remotely liberal – just ask yourself who exactly was voting for Harry West, Willie Ross and Enoch Powell all those years. During the election coverage, Jeffrey Donaldson (who knows a thing or two about the UUP) suggested that Tom had positioned his party as TUV Lite; Brian Feeney rather more acidly commented that the main difference between Elliott and Allister was that Sunny Jim was a much more urbane and sophisticated politician. Ouch.

There’s a certain cosmic inevitability to all this, and volumes could be written about the decline and fall of the once mighty UUP. (Or, if a publisher is reading this, at least a comic novel in Colin Bateman stylee.) There is certainly a story to be told about Bob McCartney, from his initial Westminster campaign backed by a motley coalition of unreconstructed Stalinists, loyalist paramilitaries and gay rights activists, right up to his entire breakaway party falling out with him and his quixotic attempt to simultaneously win Assembly seats in six constituencies so that he, Bob, could then wield six votes without having to bother with inconvenient party colleagues.

There’s a story to be told about the Baby Barristers, and how they conspired to bring down Jim Molyneaux and place David Trimble in the leadership, only to very quickly become completely browned off with Trimble, conspire at great length against him, then decamp en masse to the DUP. There’s a story to be told about Jeffrey Donaldson’s whole series of abortive putsches, where he made Trimble’s life impossible but failed to muster enough support to take over himself. And there’s a story to be told about Reg Empey’s harebrained schemes, culminating in the UCUNF debacle.

But to cut a long story short, the departure of the ex-Vanguard leadership around Trimble and Empey exposes the cultural gap between the UUP’s different sectors, mainly along the rural versus urban/suburban axis. Michael has some thoughts on this, but I think Professor Billy sums it up well:

They hiv nat so much fallen betwain’ twa stools as walked in a pair o’ them an’ then tread them all o’er the carpet. On the yin hawn, ye hiv lovely Basil wi’ his hair an’ his wee friends, scootin’ aroun’ the metrapolis like a wee smart car wi’ jazz oan the Aye Pod. On the o’er ye hiv Tam settin’ the muck spreader til full blast oan the back o’ his Massey, an’ slippin’ “The Best of Corbet Accordian Band” intil his 8 track. Ye cannae be the TUV, DUP, Alliance an’ Conservatives all at the same time, Ah think, in fact it is a miracle anybudy votes fur yis at all.

I couldn’t put it better myself. The basic point is that, since it lost its dominant position in unionism a decade ago, the UUP collectively has not known what to be at. And so it’s devolved into its constituent parts. You see, the UUP of old was not so much a big tent as an entire campsite, and the only thing that could keep disparate figures such as John Carson, Willie Ross, Harold McCusker and Enoch Powell (not to mention such prodigal figures as Bill Craig and Jim Kilfedder) in the same party was the very fact of it being a big party that could accommodate such a tangle of contradictions.

But this scattered nature has meant the UUP has been extremely vulnerable to having bits of its base cannibalised. Over the past decade, much of its traditional Middle Ulster electorate, and a large proportion of its actual cadre, has defected to the DUP. The fur coat brigade has gone over almost in its entirety to Alliance. It’s still shaking loose bits and pieces. In last week’s elections there was a very large vote in Kilkeel for UKIP councillor Henry Reilly, who used to be in the UUP and has taken his voters with him almost wholesale. And it’s said that David McClarty had a team of forty volunteers canvassing Coleraine, which is damn impressive when you consider that many UUP councillors canvass single-handed, and some don’t appear to know what a canvass is.

The UUP electorate these days boils down to three elements: rural Orangemen who like the cut of Tom Elliott’s jib; councillors who for whatever reason won’t join the DUP or Alliance (and who have personal followings based on them being useful public representatives); and elderly folk who think they’re still voting for Lord Brookeborough. The party still has a large membership, and some semblance of organisation in most areas, but this isn’t a great foundation to be building on.[1]

And here we come to realise that the Tom Elliott issue is not merely an issue of Tom’s leadership qualities. Tom actually ticks many UUP boxes – service in the UDR, past County Grand Master of the Orange Order in Fermanagh, member of the Royal Black Preceptory – and that goes down mighty well with Tom’s own voters in the Dreary Steeples. But here’s the thing. The big votes last week for Tom or indeed Danny Kennedy availed them little, as neither of them were in a position to bring in a running mate in their border constituencies. Much as the culchies may resent this, greater Belfast is where most unionist voters are, and there needs to be some appeal to the urbanites. Basil McCrea at least grasps the problem, even if he doesn’t have a convincing solution.

The road block is the nature of the UUP itself. A very large proportion of its membership – those people who made Tom leader – resides in Tyrone or Fermanagh. So do many of its councillors, which has been confirmed by the local government elections. Of the party’s current 99 councillors, a full 27 are based in the three western counties, with the border districts of Armagh and Newry & Mourne accounting for a further six and three respectively. In only three of the 26 districts did the UUP outpoll the DUP – Fermanagh, Armagh and Banbridge. The centre of gravity is firmly shifting to the border.

Then look at those results in the metropolis. As late as 2001 the UUP was the biggest party in Belfast City Hall. It is now down to from seven to three councillors out of 51. This puts it equal in representation with the PUP and UPRG, the loyalist micro-parties which represent the interests of Uncle Andy and Big Mervyn. It came in fifth place in the popular vote with 8.6%. Radiating out, the party is now down to three seats in Castlereagh and three in North Down. Not only is it continuing to leak support to the DUP, but a resurgent Alliance Party has been mauling it in what remains of the liberal unionist electorate. There’s very little of an urban base to rebuild from.

And the cluelessness continues with the decision to form a mini-UUUC on Castlereagh council, a decision rightly lambasted in today’s News Letter by Alex Kane and Basil McCrea, on the not unreasonable grounds that it a) gets the backs up of those voters who’ve been drifting from the UUP to Alliance, and b) turns the UUP locally into an appendage of the DUP, which is great for the DUP but not so great for those punters in Castlereagh who specifically chose to vote UUP.

Is it possible to reverse this trend towards an ultra-conservative Border Unionist Party with no discernible appeal to anyone living east of Lough Neagh ? I really can’t see it, and I’m not even sure that Tom even comprehends the issue. And I tell you what, if I were leading the Alliance Party I’d want to keep the phone lines open to people like Basil McCrea or Mike Nesbitt, just in case.

Oh, and the SDLP is also banjaxed, but we’ll deal with them later.

[1] This may be apocryphal, but some estimates have the UUP having a larger paid-up membership than the DUP. Obviously that doesn’t equate to either activists on the ground or electoral success, as with Fianna Fáil in the south, which in some ways is reminiscent of the UUP post its 2005 wipeout.