Burgess wrote in introduction to the 1986 edition of his gruesome masterpiece, titled A Clockwork Orange Resucked, that a creature who can only perform good or evil is “a clockwork orange — meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice, but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil; or the almighty state“. The Ulster Unionist Party is a political party a little like that; it looks like a political party, and when wound up by some of its more sensible thinkers (Trimble, King, Shipley Dalton etc) it occationally acts like one. Usually, though, even a quick inspection uncovers that it’s an automaton, a construct controlled by the ‘Loyal Orders’ and devoid of the juice of… well, devoid of juice. One can take an analogy too far.
The fact is political progress in Northern Ireland has for decades been retarded by a conflict and the painstaking construction by people with lots to gain from sectarianism of a deeply divided society. At least half the people who might have been natural tories were essentially prevented from being members by the simple threat to their lives from the republican movement, and from policies which were presented for all the world like anti-catholic. Conservatives came across as anti-Irish and anti-catholic.
Years of effort have destroyed that myth; the interventions at the Holy Cross School and the declaration of ‘No No-Go Areas for Conservatives” by Quentin Davies MP, our then Shadow Secretary of State was an honest reflection of a party which had no truck with sectarianism, which was proud to say when things were unreasonable, and be pro-active in anti-sectarianism.
The UUP didn’t acquit itself very well in those days, though some in the party tried. In election after election, the UUP tried to out-DUP the DUP, partially becasue Trimble’s jump in 1998 was perhaps a little too much a leap of faith for many UUP supporters. Instead of leading on to a better, more mainstream more anti-sectarian form of politics, they panicked and ran to the bizarre and self-annihilating position they held until recently. In those days, I would rather have chewed off my arm than validate the UUP’s leadership strategy; Trimble had been a great leader, a visionary, and he was not followed on. Embarrassingly, they were left with one MP who was not their leader; the highest aspiration of a Unionist party in the expression of that objective is representation in the Union’s parliament; the person leading the UUP has had no control over the party’s only MP.
People like me, natural unionists, natural conservatives, were crying out for normal politics in Northern Ireland, where what one thinks about health, education, transport, defence, foreign policy etc., etc actually matters. We cried out for it at half-empty meetings, at dinners, at meetings with senior party members, in fringe events at the party conference. We were proud to be conservatives and astoundingly, bafflingly embarrassed that the people of Northern Ireland couldn’t apparently get beyond the tribal sectarianism of the past.
Which brings us to the big idea of creating a demi-merger, an alliance between the parties which would see the Conservatives (ahead in the polls by 16% and with a projected majority of 121, exceptionally likely to form the next government) and the Ulster Unionists (1 MP, possible pickup of 2 more at most) come together in a marketing, campaigning and electoral pact.
It is an astoundingly simple, and astoundingly stupid idea. The UUP is just not in the game anymore, certainly not the same league as the tories; it is a faltering, poorly executed shell of its former self. Where the DUP learned from the world around it (and used its new powers fro evil rather than good) and the Conservatives reinvented themselves, the UUP got a new logo and some new sandwich platters, and some god-awful election plans. They still got a good haul of seats in the Assembly, but that simply proves that there are still some places where the UUP is preferred over the unutterably awful DUP. And that a goat on a stage with a red, white and blue rosette can win around 40% of the vote in a tight spot.
To be continued.