The Irish Times view on new UUP leader: Tacking to the centre

Few will welcome DUP’s rightward tilt as much as the UUP’s new leader

Doug Beattie, the UUP’s fifth leader in nine years, has a daunting task ahead of him, though the UUP’s decline in recent years has at least adjusted expectations. File photograph: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Doug Beattie, the UUP’s fifth leader in nine years, has a daunting task ahead of him, though the UUP’s decline in recent years has at least adjusted expectations. File photograph: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

 

The two parties that have dominated unionism in Northern Ireland for decades have replaced their leaders in the past week. The new figureheads embody radically different ideas of unionism’s future.

In selecting Edwin Poots to succeed Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has reverted to its religious conservative roots, opting for a man preoccupied with the battle on its right flank with Jim Allister’s insurgent Traditional Unionist Voice. In contrast, the Ulster Unionist Party’s (UUP) incoming leader, Doug Beattie, is liberal on social issues and sees his priority as staunching the flow of support to the centrist Alliance Party, particularly among young people who identify less and less with the tribal parties that have long dominated Northern politics.

In Beattie’s favour is his relatively high profile, his clear political identity and his intuitive grasp of the fact that Northern Ireland is changing

Whereas Poots’s first speech as leader omitted any mention of nationalists and made no appeal to new voters, Beattie used his own first statement as leader designate – having been elected unopposed on Monday – to frame the UUP as “a modern, forward-thinking, progressive” party whose values can be brought “into the 21st century and beyond.”

Beattie, a decorated British army veteran and MLA for Upper Bann, is the UUP’s fifth leader in nine years. He has a daunting task ahead of him, though the UUP’s decline in recent years has at least adjusted expectations. The party has no MPs at Westminster and just 10 MLAs. At a minimum Beattie must keep its Stormont representation in double figures. Beyond that, the party will have to rebuild its local structures and speak to the concerns of middle-ground voters who have drifted towards Alliance. That trend has been most pronounced among women, according to opinion polls. The party’s decline is particularly acute in Belfast, where it has just two councillors.

In Beattie’s favour is his relatively high profile, his clear political identity and his intuitive grasp of the fact that Northern Ireland is changing – and that its parties must change with it. Few will welcome the DUP’s rightward tilt as much as the UUP’s new leader.

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