Is Doug Beattie, the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, the ‘man who will save the Union’? This is the argument Ruth Davidson has made in an end-of-year essay for UnHerd.
It’s worth reading in full, but the bare bones of her case are as follows: Northern Ireland may well leave the Union in a decade or so; if it did, it would undermine the Unionist position in Scotland; but Beattie and his new approach to pro-Union politics will stave off these twin disasters. But is this the case?
There is certainly a lot to recommend Beattie’s approach. For all that it has been represented by three parties in recent years, the narrowness of the electoral offer from what I call ‘capital-U Unionism’ in Ulster has long been a serious weakness. Whilst many pro-UK voters there are right-wing and socially conservative, many others – and crucially, many more potential pro-UK voters – are not.
The UUP will never be able to fix this on their own. The Province still awaits the advent of the sort of decent, left-wing unionist party that Labour’s refusal to organise denies them. (The tiny Progressive Unionist Party has paramilitary connections.)
But a more liberal approach to social issues does open up new political territory, perhaps especially with the sort of soft unionist voter who has been alienated by traditional Unionism but might be concerned about the development of the Alliance Party from a broadly ‘liberal unionist’ outlook to a constitutionally neutral one.
Likewise, the recognition of how important it is to create space for ‘de facto unionists’ amongst Northern Ireland’s Catholic community to actually vote for a pro-UK party is very welcome. Polling regularly shows a substantial minority of Catholics support remaining in the United Kingdom; the fraction of those voters actually putting their cross next to Stormont or Westminster candidates who share that position is miniscule.
However, Beattie has a very difficult job there. Unlike a brand-new pro-UK party, such as the ill-fated NI21 promised to be, the Ulster Unionists are an old party with a long history. They were the ‘Official Unionists’ who ran the Province as an effective one-party state during the era of the old Parliament of Northern Ireland. Capital-U Unionist politicians, including even those in the DUP, have talked about the importance of wooing Catholic voters for some time. Whether such talk can translate into effective action remains to be seen.
Nor is this the only front on which the new UUP leader is fighting an uphill battle. It is also a fact that despite the DUP’s recent political woes, the current Stormont system is stacked in their favour. This is because New Labour, as part of the dishonourable tradition of abdicating Westminster’s ultimate responsibility for governance in Ulster in favour of buying off the local parties, allowed the DUP and Sinn Fein to re-write the way Stormont works.
Under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement, set in 2007, it is no longer the largest bloc (Unionist or Nationalist) of MLAs that nominate the First Minister, but the largest party. Which means that even if Beattie’s approach expanded the overall number of pro-UK legislators, if it dragged the DUP behind Sinn Fein it would lead to a high-profile, if largely symbolic, setback for Unionism. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party will hammer this point home during the elections.
(We might also wonder, thinking longer-term, if Beattie’s long-overdue overhaul of Unionism will extend to rebuilding its links to mainland, and thus to national, politics. If he succeeds in returning MPs to Westminster, will they sit impotently with the ‘Others’ as their predecessors have done, with only brief exception, since the 1970s? Will their be some effort to rebuild the historic relationship with the Conservatives?)
So far, so pessimistic. But there is one happier ground on which events might not play out according to Davidson’s narrative: the Union may simply not be under the imminent threat she seems to suppose. As I pointed out in a recent piece, the evidence from Lord Ashcroft’s polling is not as grim as it might appear. People anticipate a ‘United Ireland’ whilst painting an overwhelmingly negative portrait of what it would actually entail in terms of jobs, welfare, and public spending. And despite the upheaval of the past few years, there was even a swing towards the UK since his previous poll.
Those results, therefore, seem to speak more to nationalism’s skill at creating a sense of historic inevitability – see also the continual efforts to get unionists to ‘engage’ in talks on joining the Republic – than to make a strong, practical case against the Union. It may therefore be that the burden resting on Beattie’s shoulders is not quite so heavy has his supporters think.