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'It's all over the place': What next for the Ulster Unionist Party?

UUP leader Robin Swann announced that he was stepping down this week.

UUP leader Robin Swann, left, who this week announced that he was stepping down.
UUP leader Robin Swann, left, who this week announced that he was stepping down.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

ROBIN SWANN’S ANNOUNCEMENT this week that he will stand down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party confirmed what many already knew – that the traditional party of unionism is facing an identity crisis. 

Not that Swann’s tenure was a disaster. There was no major scandal that can be blamed on him – instead he simply failed to correct the party’s long spell on the periphery of unionism. 

Speaking to the BBC on Friday, he blamed the party’s disastrous performance in the May European election – losing the seat it had held since 1979 – as simply a case of politics becoming too polarised. 

“We fell between two stools,” he said. 

But it’s an explanation that could have characterised the party’s two-decade-long decline – not hardline enough for some voters during the compromise days of power-sharing, but far from attractive as a home for liberal unionists. 

The typical narrative is that it all went downhill after the Good Friday Agreement, which precipitated a dramatic decline in support for the party of Edward Carson and James Craig. 

The figures reflect this too. In 1997, the party won 32.7% of the vote, compared to the DUP’s 13.6%. 

By 2005, in the rocky few years before the St Andrew’s Agreement was signed, support had fallen to 17.7% – leaving the UUP with only one MP. 

In 2017, things had fallen further after a brief resurgence in 2015. The party’s vote dropped to only 83,280 votes compared to the DUP’s 292,316. 

The explanations are various. Some point to the party’s flexibility on controversial issues like decommissioning and the release of prisoners. Others say David Trimble and his successors took unionist voters for granted – failing to contemplate that their loyalty wasn’t infallible. 

But most agree that it was in the early 2000s when things started to go awry for the party, with the loss of Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson to the DUP. 

Queen’s University Belfast’s Dr Graham Walker, an expert on unionism, told TheJournal.ie that over the last two decades the Ulster Unionists allowed themselves to be outflanked and outbid on key issues by the DUP. 

“They didn’t seem to have the capacity to respond. Their psyche was the main party of unionism,” he says.

Worse, its response has too often been chaotic and confused – as if surprised that the politicking and concessions of the years since the Good Friday Agreement would cause no more than a minor tremor among unionist voters. 

european-parliament-election The European Parliament elections in May were a major failing for the UUP. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

“It’s tried various leaders. It tried linking up to the Tories. It has tried to outflank the DUP on traditional unionist issues, but has also tried to appeal to liberal unionists. It’s all over the place really,” Walker said.

The next steps are less clear. While the SDLP and the Alliance Party have the luxury of a broader vote base – younger, in some cases more liberal – the UUP is somewhat backed into a corner by a large base of socially conservative supporters who no doubt have a broad range of views on Brexit. 

Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie is favourite to succeed Swann when he steps down next year, but South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken has also said that he’ll run. 

It’s expected that the new leader will try and follow former leader Mike Nesbitt’s abortive attempt to steer the party towards the centre – remembered best for all the pre-election talk in 2017 of Ulster Unionist transfers to the SDLP.

It may yet succeed – there is certainly a niche in unionism among those dissatisfied at the DUP’s monopoly – but the problem of a confident Alliance alternative may yet hurt the party in the heartland of Belfast and Antrim. 

Whoever wins, there will be an immediate temptation towards the short-term gains of bashing the DUP on Brexit – and possibly tracking towards a more extreme position.

With some dissatisfaction already detectable over the party’s decision to back Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan – which would put a regulatory border in the Irish sea – the electoral payoffs are obvious. 

“The UUP will be very tempted to try and make as much capital out of that as they can… and they will have to tack to a more traditional unionist position,” Walker says. 

Certainly, this seemed to be the strategy Swann was following when he launched an attack on Johnson’s proposal this week. 

“The Prime Minister and the DUP are fooling no-one with these proposals. This new protocol should be deeply concerning for all those who have the long term economic and constitutional welfare of Northern Ireland and its people at heart,” he said. 

“This represents a road to Damascus conversion by the DUP and a very sharp u-turn on statements they made to the Northern Ireland public. The Prime Minister and the DUP were full of big talk. These proposals don’t offer them much of a fig leaf,” he added. 

And yet on Friday Swann also urged the party to take a middle-ground position more generally – though without spelling out whether a more radical Brexit policy can be fused with moderate unionist policies. 

It’s a strategy Walker doesn’t think could prove “sustainable”.

It’s not the only party casting around for an identity. The SDLP, for instance, has chosen to take up the “remain” mantle in the North, while also fumbling together an alliance with Fianna Fáil. 

But the Ulster Unionist Party, facing the prospect of an election in the coming months, has much less time – and perhaps less energy – to carve out an identity that helps it back to the glory days of the 20th century. 

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