Ulster Unionists and the Haass “mess”


Was the Ulster Unionist Party’s rejection of the Haass talks a political masterstroke or a failure of leadership?

How will the DUP and more importantly the electorate respond? And what are the implications for the peace process, which let’s remember is still work in progress here.

Let’s start with the statement issued by the party this week.

“The Ulster Unionist Party seeks a positive resolution to the issues of flags, parading and dealing with the past.

Consequently, this Executive believes the Haass document is not viable and therefore unacceptable.

This Executive further calls on OFMdFM to sort out the mess resulting from the process they initiated; The Ulster Unionist Party will examine any measures brought forward by the First Minister and deputy First Minister and report again to the Executive at its next scheduled meeting in February.”

First of all it is very terse. The party says it wants to resolve the issues but does not spell out why the Haass document, previously described by its leader as 90% there, is deemed not viable. This in itself is interesting, because you would normally expect that if a party deemed such a long-running political process to be a “mess” that it would spell out precisely what it considered to be its failings.

Then it places the onus on Sinn Fein and the DUP to come up with proposals to make progress which it will review in February. So despite the assertion that the document is not viable the party is still up for considering further proposals.

It is interesting here to note that the party says it wants the DUP and Sinn Fein to develop proposals. One of the main complaints of other parties to date about governance in Northern Ireland has been that the DUP and Sinn Fein have excluded them from policy-making, yet here we have the UUP holding back and asking precisely for that.

So what’s really going on?

Opinion polls consistently show an alarming disenchantment with the political process in Northern Ireland. There’s a sense that we are allowing ourselves to be trapped in the past and need stronger leadership to make progress.

Yet that has not been the UUP’s experience. The unpopularity of O’Neillism with many core voters led to the rise of the DUP, and its supremacy as the major unionist party came about through its opposition to David Trimble’s work which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement.

The lessons of history for the Ulster Unionists appear to suggest that compromise and accommodation have not had fruitful results. That’s the bald fact of it. The party will also be buoyed by its experience of opposing the planned peace and reconciliation centre at the Maze.

So you can see that from a practical, political perspective, that the tactic of putting the onus on the DUP to come up with a solution to these most divisive issues is a sound one.

However, this not 1970 or 1998. Today there are three important factors at play.

First the DUP is now without question the dominant political force. It achieved this through oppositional politics coupled with discipline, superior organisation and then, when it felt the time was right, a huge amount of work on the ground to bring its grassroots with it into governance.  It is a formidable political machine, dangerous to underestimate. It is unlikely to be blind-sided by the UUP on this, it had a senior Orangeman on its negotiating team and is most unlikely to try to sell anything which it knows will be unpalatable to its core supporters.

Second there has been the strident emergence of disaffected loyalists who feel disengaged from the mainstream and have asserted themselves through street and flag protests. Many traditionally don’t vote but there has been a concerted push to increase voter registrations amongst this community which is likely to be a factor in the next election. But which existing party is most likely to appeal to them? The TUV, which asserts oppositional unionism? The PUP with its loyalist roots? An engaged DUP, the most powerful voice? Or the UUP with its reformist and “Big House” past?

Third there is the emergence of a new generation of people who want to turn away from sectarian politics and are disillusioned with the traditional parties. This trend is nibbling away at the UUP, Alliance actually gained support post flag protests, and NI21 is a new, emerging threat.  Analysis of voter preference at the last Assembly elections showed that the UUP’s centre right policy agenda was actually the most popular with voters, yet this did not translate into votes. It is even less likely to do so in May, when we vote in European and Council elections.

Politicians rely on votes. Voters demand “leadership” and most of us want outstanding issues to be resolved. Yet the experience of the Ulster Unionist has been that it has been brought to its knees by attempts to provide “leadership” in the past.

That’s because when it comes to the privacy of the polling booth voters tend to opt for the strongest voice of their “community” rather than for compromise, accomodation and change.

Until that changes, nothing will change. But if you don’t like that, don’t blame the politicians. If you really want to point the finger, look in the mirror.