Does it matter any more who leads the Ulster Unionist Party? The question arises because Robin Swann, its leader for the past two years, has announced he is stepping down. This has added to the sense the party is a lost cause.
Yet the UUP still has an enormous bloc of voters and a pivotal role within the political system, at least when it chooses to use it.
In the local government elections in May, it was the third-largest party by some margin with 16 per cent of first preferences, significantly out-polling the SDLP and Alliance even after the latter’s dramatic near-doubling of support.
Percentage results vary with the different types of elections but absolute numbers are more consistent. The UUP has been bumping along for a decade with just under 100,000 votes, around half the core figures for Sinn Féin and the DUP.
A generation after the end of the Troubles, there is still a huge chunk of the population, unionist and nationalist, who will not touch the two largest parties with a barge pole. The UUP hangs on to its share of them with a broad-church approach based more on a fading notion of respectability than any stance of moderation.
Competition with Alliance turned nasty in May's council elections, revealing how uncomfortable the UUP can be on liberal ground
At several junctures over the past decade, most notably under Swann's predecessor, Mike Nesbitt, the UUP has been challenged to take a clear liberal unionist position, somewhere in the gap between the DUP and Alliance. Many of its voters would be alienated by such a move but there would be a prospect of long-term survival and growth.
Nesbitt inched his party towards the transformative idea of a centre-ground, cross-community opposition, in a loose arrangement with the SDLP. When this failed to produce gains in the 2017 Assembly election, he resigned. Swann returned to the broad-church approach but suddenly this has run out of time.
Moment of truth
In May’s European election, three weeks after the council contest, the UUP vote almost halved to 53,000 and the party lost its only seat to Alliance. In subsequent opinion polls, Alliance has become the third-largest party by some margin. Alliance says most of this surge comes from new voters, and European elections are unusual, but there is no doubt the moment of truth for the UUP has finally arrived. Either it picks a spot between the DUP and Alliance or the gap will close over it. The two front-runners to replace Swann are outspoken liberals. There is also speculation of Nesbitt returning to try again.
None of this means a serious repositioning will be attempted. People at the coal-face of politics are unimpressed by the idea of shrinking to grow. Even if a new leader was committed to the task, they could fail – there would certainly be internal dissent. Competition with Alliance turned nasty in May’s council elections, revealing how uncomfortable the UUP can be on liberal ground.
A common observation is that it would be better for unionism and Northern Ireland in general if the party went out of business and let the DUP and Alliance pick up the pieces.
The crises of the past three years show otherwise. Under Nesbitt, the UUP opposed Brexit and permitted free votes on same-sex marriage and abortion. Nesbitt warned social conservatives in the party they were “on the wrong side of history.”
Blocking Stormont’s return
Under Swann, the UUP has tried not to be outflanked by the DUP on any of these issues, and has been more hardline than the DUP on an Irish language Act, seen as blocking Stormont’s return. The result has been described as “DUP-lite” and the effect has been to let the larger party claim it speaks for the entire unionist community.
The DUP appeals to unionists by telling them they need a strong voice, but they also need an alternative voice
That claim is now taken as read, with significant consequences. Last month, DUP chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson was widely cited by UK press and politicians when he said "there isn't a single unionist elected representative who supports the backstop".
Independent unionist MP Sylvia Hermon, a strong backstop advocate, was forgotten, while soft-Brexiteers and Remainers inside the UUP have been silenced.
Allowing the DUP to speak for every unionist has allowed it to advance a concept of “parallel consent”, where separate nationalist and unionist permission is required and only the DUP can grant it on unionism’s behalf.
Although there is a similar veto mechanism at Stormont, the Belfast Agreement was passed by a simple majority. That is how it is meant to operate day-to-day and evolve towards “normal” politics. Nesbitt’s cross-community opposition plan was in line with this but turning unionism into a DUP-led monolith has thrown everything into reverse. Who can deny the disasters that have followed?
The DUP appeals to unionists by telling them they need a strong voice, but they also need an alternative voice. The UUP can play that crucial role, even if it endures as a relatively small party. There is still space on the political spectrum for it to do so. But this is absolutely its last chance.