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Ulster Unionist Party: a week of disaster

I am sorry for banging on about the travails of the Ulster Unionist Party here, a party for which I have never considered voting (and I am sure that is true of most of you reading this too).

But this has been an extraordinary week, just from the technical point of view of managing your party as the election campaign gets under way.

Problem 1: the Deputy Chairman (sic) of the party resigned because his local hospital (in Derry) is not getting its proposed radiotherapy department, a decision made by the Health Minister, who is also from the UUP (but from Belfast). The departing Deputy Chairman described his own party's minister's decision as 'wrong'.

What should have been done? From a tactical point of view, this could have been averted by 1) not announcing the decision so close to the election campaign, though I admit I have no idea of the minister's freedom of manoeuvre on this, and more crucially 2) making sure that the party's Deputy Chairman, and other local representatives, had had an opportunity to raise his concerns in some formal way. The rewards of holding a high-level but unpaid post such as Deputy Chairman of a political party are rather few, and it is very easy to feel that the people who your have worked for to get them into ministerial office are then simply not listening to you. In those circumstances, better to put your energies somewhere else.

Some deeper reflection would also have recognised that the UUP has a decades-long image problem in Derry, where the DUP has been the larger Unionist party since the local elections of 1981, and the UUP won only one seat out of thirty in the last council elections; even if there are no longer very many UUP voters left in the city to annoy, it just looks bad.>

Problem 2: The UUP have two ministers of the eleven in the Executive. I have covered the travails of one of them above. The other, the Minister for Employment and Learning, had a bad week as well, as one of his Special Advisers was caught bragging to an undercover journalist over the internet about trading access to his boss in return for sexual favours from lobbyists. This story has almost everything you could want in a political scandal: the role of Special Advisers is little understood and they are unfairly unpopular, the bloke in question is a part-time clergyman, and the details as published are excruciatingly embarrassing. The only element missing is drug abuse.

What should have been done? Actually the UUP got this one completely right; they sacked the guy as soon as the story broke, and he'll never work in politics (or, probably, the Church) again. While I am sure that there will be some internal debate as to whether and how this situation could have been avoided, I'm also sure that anyone who has ever made a political hire is aware that it could have happened to them.

Problem 3: The third problem, on the other hand, is almost entirely self-generated. UUP leader Tom Elliott has an obsession with the provision in the Northern Ireland institutional setup that provides for the leader of the largest party after the election to choose the new First Minister. If Sinn Féin get more votes than the DUP, Martin McGuinness will become First Minister. The only way that is likely to happen is if the UUP's fortunes revive sufficiently to eat into DUP support to pull them below the votes gained by SF (as indeed happened thanks to the intervention of Jim Allister's TUV in the 2009 European Election and the inter-Unionist pact in Fermanagh South Tyrone in the 2009 Westminster election). For those voters who care about this issue, therefore, a vote for the UUP is effectively also a vote for a Sinn Féin First Minister of Northern Ireland. 

Elliott has handled this question with astonishing clumsiness. He began by simply asking the British government to change the rules, on the basis that the UUP and the British Conservatives are sister parties and therefore the Tories should do as he asks. His request was rejected out of hand; no British government is going to make even the slightest tweak to the constitutional arrangements just because they have been asked nicely by a political leader who failed to elect a single MP last year. Elliott should have been aware of this, and he was foolish to make his dialogue with the British so humiliatingly public.

Over the last week things got really bizarre (see also Ian Parsley's brutal analysis).
  • On Monday, Elliott said that if necessary after the election the UUP and DUP could do a temporary formal merger to prevent SF being the largest single party. The DUP's response was lukewarm; the first they had heard about this proposal was through the media.
  • On Tuesday, SF said that they would consider a job share, with two 'Joint First Ministers'.
  • On Thursday, Elliott's Deputy Leader and another front-bencher declared on live radio that in fact they didn't have a problem with Martin McGuinness as First Minister, if that was what the voters wanted.
  • An Elliott loyalist then phoned into the radio programme to tell the deputy leader and his colleague that they were stabbing Elliott in the back.
  • Elliott had a meeting with all three later that evening and emerged to announce that they had all apologised, though two of the three later denied that any apologies had been made.
What should have been done? First of all, Elliott should stop banging on about the need to avert a Sinn Féin First Minister. The rules won't be changed without SF and DUP buy-in, the DUP will probably top the poll at the election given the decline of Allister's fortunes and the absence of electoral pacts, and those voters who actually care about this are voting DUP anyway. What he has done is to expose his own inability to lobby the British government on constitutional change, and then his own weak leadership of his party.

Structurally, the risk of last week's problems occurring could have been reduced by making sure that before UUP spokespeople (well, spokesmen as they all seem to be) go on live radio or TV, they have had a chat with the party's press officer - indeed, preferably with the party's leader - to make sure that they are clear on the party lines. That doesn't necessarily mean quelling dissent, but it does mean that dissent can be informed dissent and it vastly increases the chance of consistency. I spotted this problem before on election night last year, when the DUP were grimly prepared for their leader's defeat, and the UUP were not. (David McNarry was a key figure then as well.)

But I sense another structural problem: Elliott seems rather prone to tossing off ideas to the media before they have had much internal party ventilation. The idea of a possible post-election merger with the DUP, however limited in nature, is rather a big one to inflict on fellow party members without warning. (The fact that the DUP had also not been approached about this idea is another indication that it's not a serious policy, though that doesn't necessarily mean that advocating it is a bad strategy.)

Elliott is a genuinely nice and warm and friendly man, and needs to show that side of his personality rather more than he has done; and he will be a better leader if he implements some internal party discipline over public statements, particularly if he starts by applying that discipline to himself. That will generate a faint chance that the party can start debates about actual policies, if it has any, rather than starring in news stories about political disasters.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
emmzzi
Mar. 26th, 2011 03:30 pm (UTC)
don't apologise, this is fascinating and I can take some more too :)
pnh
Mar. 26th, 2011 04:41 pm (UTC)
Same here!
arwel_p
Mar. 26th, 2011 08:40 pm (UTC)
I had no idea Northern Irish politics were so entertaining!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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