Doug Beattie: Moving beyond the politics of identity

‘You have to leave religion at the door when you’re trying to do politics,’ says UUP leader

In his constituency office in Portadown, Co Armagh, the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has a portrait of the queen, plenty of military memorabilia and a hardback collection of WB Yeats' poetry.

"We are such a rich culture with people like Yeats, like [Seamus] Heaney, I sometimes think we don't realise what we have," says Doug Beattie. "We are so self-critical as an island, even as a people – we don't realise how good we are and how much we offer to people."

For Beattie, part of this offering is its multiplicity of identities. He has “always viewed myself as Irish . . . clearly I’m British as well but my whole life I’ve identified as Irish.”

He loves the "uniqueness" of being Irish and from Northern Ireland, but still belonging to the United Kingdom, with "Ireland as a country that I want to be our best friend."


“I say to people, there’s so much that represents me. Gaelic games, the Irish language, shamrock, Guinness, God Save the Queen, the Sash, Ulster rugby, Irish rugby – all of these things represent me. And the point is, how do we show respect not just to each of those aspects, but respect in how we promote our different identities?”

This is only one of the challenges ahead for Beattie. It has been a long time since the UUP stood, apparently unassailable, as the party of unionism. In the last Assembly elections in 2017, it won just 12.9 per cent of the vote and Beattie – the party’s third leader in four years – will be under pressure to demonstrate that he can reverse its decline in the elections due next year.

On this, he compares the party to a “supertanker” with a “big turning circle . . . We have been reaching out for a long time and have been changing for a long time, and we’re maybe picking up a degree of speed now.”

Certainly Beattie brings a “different CV” to the role of party leader.

‘Hardship and division’

A decorated soldier, he joined the British army at 16 and his first posting was to Spandau prison in Berlin – where he guarded Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess – and has served in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I've seen hardship and division of societies and people in a different light in Bosnia and Kosovo, I've seen poverty in Uganda and Sierra Leone and Somalia, so I see poverty in a different way, I see division in a different way. I see the impact of religion in a different way, for good and for bad in different areas."

He is socially liberal; in politics, he has acquired a reputation as straight-talking and principled, someone who is honest and upfront about his views.

Beattie describes how he had “the door slammed on me” because of his support for same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights, but hopes that even those who don’t agree with him “will say, at least he’s honest, and he won’t lie for a vote”.

His guiding principle is to “serve and add value to people’s lives” but also he expresses an “awful sense of failure that I carry about with me. I left school at the age of 16 with no educational qualifications.”

As UUP leader, there is “the fear I’ll fail society here, and that’s really heavy”. But he feels a “real sense that I can offer something, the party can offer something. We can build bridges here, we can unite people, we can be a union of people.”

Beattie cites the "growing demographic of people who see themselves as Northern Irish, who just want Northern Ireland to succeed . . . they're happy with the status quo as long as Northern Ireland is succeeding."

What is certain is that a significant number of people in the North no longer define themselves by traditional labels.

According to the 2019 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, 33 per cent of people surveyed regard themselves as unionist, 23 per cent as nationalist and 39 per cent as neither; a result to watch in next year’s election will be the performance of Alliance, which was the third-largest party in terms of vote share in the 2019 Westminster election.

Beattie argues that while “people’s culture and identity and flags and things like that are really important, it shouldn’t define how we deal with education or health or infrastructure or anything like that”.

LGBT rights and abortion

Instead, the key is to move away from “identity politics” and work on policies and issues that affect everyone. “That protects and promotes the union.”

This, he says, is the way to see off any potential Border poll, though he does not believe any is imminent.

Unionism, he feels, has acquired a negative reputation; though he acknowledges the UUP is not "whiter than white" in this regard, unionism has been led for the last 15 years by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

“They’ve been discriminatory in the way they’ve done things,” he says, describing as “awful” the party’s stance on LGBT rights and abortion.

He stresses that while he has “absolute respect” for everyone’s religious beliefs – the commentary around the new DUP leader Edwin Poots’ creationism was “diabolical” – the DUP has “allowed religion to shape policies . . . You have to leave your religion at the door when you’re trying to do politics and policies which are for all of the people.

“In fact, they’ve courted that religious vote and their ‘not an inch’ mentality has led us to where we are now.”

The Northern Ireland protocol, he says, is something that has to be addressed.

“It damages the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement, but even if you look at community relations, it is damaging that fine balance we have here . . . It is creating an air of instability which is not good for Northern Ireland.”

While there are ways of resolving this, he says, “I don’t think they’ve been explored. I think people have used threats and fear to create the scenario where we are now.

“Others have just stood and said, ‘I’m going to dismantle it, I’m going to get rid of it’ . . . You can’t vote it away in four years, it’s not true.”

On the forthcoming election , he is clear on how it will be fought: “The DUP will say vote for the DUP or you’ll have a Sinn Féin first minister, and Sinn Féin will say vote for us and it’ll be the first time there’s a Sinn Féin first minister.

“They will use fear to get people to vote one way or the other . . . The moderate nationalist and unionist parties who want to work together . . . will be squeezed out time and time again until the electorate say, actually, no.”

The future, he says, will be down to “that demographic coming up the middle who identify as Northern Irish.

“That’s where we need to go. I think that’s where we’re going, and that’s what I’m playing my hand on.”