By Edward Ferrin – Chief Stormont Correspondent
Ruth Davidson is accredited with many different achievements: the first openly gay leader of Toryism in Scotland, a formidable opponent to Nichola Sturgeon and the SNP, saviour of Theresa May’s election woes in 2017, a positive, forward-thinking leader to defend the Unionist cause. She has taken a considerable amount of time engaging with the defence of the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland and Scotland since becoming a member of the House of Lords.
Her recent article over the new year sparked some interesting points from her contribution. In the article for UnHerd, she argued that Doug Beattie is most probably the “man, quite probably, who will save the Union.” Doug Beattie has been the Ulster Unionist Party leader since May 2021, in which time, he has overseen the rise and demise of Edwin Poots as DUP leader, and the slow rise of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as Poots’ successor. Usually, it is the DUP leader who oversees the rise and demise of the Ulster Unionist leadership.
Last year, Doug Beattie achieved a huge achievement by leading the UUP to an opinion poll lead over the DUP (albeit by 2%) for the first time since David Trimble was the Ulster Unionist leader and Ian Paisley was cast to the wilderness (temporarily) in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. Those people in Northern Ireland who classify as unionists and who wish to protect and defend the union with Great Britain have a golden opportunity: they can consign the slow train to Dublin under the DUP with a last-minute alteration on the line.
Doug Beattie and the UUP have had to go through a long, painful, and tiresome process of re-definition and re-imagination of their brand of Unionism in Northern Ireland. The UUP has deserved electoral defeats and bruising publicity events since the 2003 assembly election. The Trimble Project gave the party its most memorable and painful moments in political life, from the 1997 General Election win of 10 MPs to the 2005 General Election landslide defeat to the DUP, holding just 1 MP. What the UUP has got to do now in 2022…is sock it to the DUP!
Doug Beattie now has something that no leader of his party had before – 19 years of the DUP being responsible for the defence of the union in Northern Ireland. The DUP have led unionism in Northern Ireland since November 2003. In that time, we have seen the DUP hammer the founding party of Northern Ireland’s Unionism at the polls on an almost constant basis. The past five years have proven that the DUP are finally been caught up by problems of their very own making. In all of those 19 years, they jabbed the UUP for mis-handling the unionist cause in Northern Ireland; it has finally underlined their eminent downfall from strength and stability.
One quite important question for us political commentators is whether or not his recent PR disaster with old twitter posts labelled “racist and misogynist” might keep the UUP and Doug Beattie from entering Stormont as the head of Unionism’s share of the Executive Office.
Whether Jeffrey Donaldson’s attempt to bang the old war cry will win the DUP the election in May is a matter for the electorate, and whether Kate Hoey and Jamie Bryson continue to help the DUP cling on to power. However, he will have to explain how, in the days since Unionists ousted Trimble from office, the Union is in a worse state than in 2003. He will have to explain why the DUP have not defended the Unionist movement from the sense of disaffection felt in the flag dispute of 2012, the hurt caused by the Maze Stadium controversy, power-sharing with Sinn Fein, a border poll more likely than ever before, and still no change in the record of academic achievement within working class communities, many of whom are unionists and loyalists. Of course, we also shouldn’t forget the fact the DUP propped up the Tories at Westminster, allowed Boris Johnson to serve as Prime Minister, gave Northern Ireland no other option on the table bar the Protocol and possibly Michelle O’Neill as the new leader of the largest single assembly party in May.
Many believe that the DUP have not defended or promoted the Union in Northern Ireland – some arguing that it’s time for a change within Unionism come the May election. The alternatives are clearly: go more moderate with the Ulster Unionists and Doug Beattie, or go more hard line with the TUV and Jim Allister. Weighing up the pros and cons of both parties, some believe there has never been no clearer need to vote for Doug Beattie’s party. We know the UUP have been Unionist leaders before, and of course, we remember the days when David Trimble simply lost the vital connection with the Unionist electorate to keep Unionists onside with his policies. We have seen the UUP make some massive blunders while in the leadership of Unionism in Northern Ireland, but that was 19 years ago – David Trimble stood down as leader of the UUP in May 2005.
What is clear is that of all the major unionist parties in Northern Ireland, only the Ulster Unionists have gone through the same social change and experimentation that wider Northern Ireland society has been through over the past twenty years. They have moved from a hard conservative force, stuck in the constitutional debate, out of touch with wider unionist opinion towards a (albeit brief and cosmetic) moderate, socially progressive party with an interest in promoting the union through a more globalist view of Northern Ireland politics.
As many more optimistic activists agree, it still has some work still to do. It must define itself as something more than a movement of 18 constituency parties, combining conservative and liberal unionists together under a very unhappy and unfriendly family. Again, the question should still be asked is how can a liberal unionist like Mike Nesbitt be in the same party as a conservative unionist like Jim Rodgers? Sometimes it isn’t easy for a party as old as the UUP to go through a political mid-life crisis for the third time in twenty years – it weakens the party at critical electoral hurdles, but also may find reward. It may well build the party back to the heights of electoral prosperity it once enjoyed in 1992 and 1997.
The TUV and Jim Allister deserve respect (to a small extent). The philosophy of “no guns, no government” has been flouted by the three major unionist parties – Trimble held this view in 1998 and Paisley kept clinging to this red line until 2007. Yet the UUP and DUP both withdrew this commitment, sparking anger among a small group of Unionists active in the political game to form a new party – TUV, under the leadership of Jim Allister. Once a stalwart of the DUP, Allister left in 1987 from the party of Paisley over the latter’s pact with Molyneaux’s UUP at elections and again in 2007 over the Paisley’s decision to end his 30-year long battle with Sinn Fein and enter power-sharing with Martin McGuiness.
The TUV and Jim Allister deserve respect (to a small extent). The philosophy of “no guns, no government” has been flouted by the three major Unionist parties – Trimble held this view in 1998 and Paisley kept clinging to this red line until 2007. Yet the UUP and DUP both withdrew this commitment, sparking anger among a small group of Unionists active in the political game to form a new party – TUV, under the leadership of Jim Allister. Once a stalwart of the DUP, Allister left in 1987 from the party of Paisley over the latter’s pact with Molyneaux’s UUP at elections and again in 2007 over the Paisley’s decision to end his 30-year long battle with Sinn Fein and enter power-sharing with Martin McGuiness.
People respect Jim Allister and the TUV for their constant and unwavering belief in the “no guns, no government” policy and their opposition to Sinn Fein in government. The DUP pretend that they too maintain their strong opposition to Sinn Fein but have the cheek the following day or week to sit in Executive meetings with that same party. Jim Allister’s policy on removing mandatory coalition deserves merit and applause – he has maintained this policy since the Constitutional Conference held in 1980, when he negotiated as part of a DUP delegation with the SDLP and Alliance.
However, what Jim Allister and his TUV colleagues will one day have to acknowledge is that Unionists have lost the battles over “no guns, no government” and voluntary coalition. Why did Trimble and Paisley (of all Unionists) finally cave in on that demand? The Allister cohort of Unionism will have to one day come to terms with the fact that Sinn Fein receives a mandate on behalf of a group of people within Northern Ireland and are granted the right by those people to serve in a power-sharing administration at Stormont. Also, they will have to recognise that both the British and Irish governments will never grant voluntary coalition at Stormont level until the polarised politics promoted by Unionism and nationalism is put in the history bin.
It is important to recognise that this view of the future, as many have pointed out, is not going to progress Unionism in Northern Ireland. It is simply far too outdated and overzealous to believe that TUV and Jim Allister will succeed in turning the tide towards Sinn Fein and a united Ireland. Jim Allister promotes a Unionism that would have worked in the days of ‘70s and ‘80s, but simply is not fit for the test in 2022. He does have an important role to play in re-building Unionism in 2022 – he is seen as a strong, principled, determined leader of the right-wing, social conservative and fiscally hawkish Unionism that attracts the evangelicals and the bible belt that Ian Paisley once commanded in and around Northern Ireland.
A dramatic exodus to the TUV would not make things better for Unionism – every time Unionists take a hard right towards more hard-line policies and stances – the more nationalists take a hard left towards Sinn Fein. What Unionists need to realise is that to counter or respond to Sinn Fein’s dominance within nationalist politics, is to promote Unionism and persuade non-Unionists of the benefits of Union with Great Britain and Unionist politics. Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister would never be up to this task, but Doug Beattie can.
The usual rallying call of Unionists who have no other motives except a cold line of sectarianism that Unionists can’t support the Good Friday Agreement are wrong. They believe that the 1998 accord is leading Northern Ireland towards a united Ireland. They don’t realise that they are the very reason why a united Ireland is still a likely prospect. The 1998 accord gives Unionists and nationalists equal responsibilities and rights in Northern Ireland, whether at the corridors of power at Stormont, on the dock in the criminal courts or in the workplace. Those Unionists rotating around Jeffrey Donaldson’s small view don’t grasp this simple fact. It enforces protections and conditions for a border poll in Northern Ireland, meaning that each time Sinn Fein have demanded that one be held, the Secretary of State has rightly rejected their proposal.
If Unionists don’t play their part in the role of government and power-sharing, Unionism risks losing the arguments as to why Northern Ireland should remain within the United Kingdom. No matter how much Unionists like it or not, the decision to leave the European Union was rejected in Northern Ireland – the Protocol has been agreed by Boris Johnson with Brussels to mitigate this problem. The mechanisms of the Good Friday Agreement don’t have authority over the Protocol as it is a matter confined to an international treaty agreed by the entire United Kingdom and the entire European Union. The Good Friday Agreement only deals with matters confined to Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Jeffrey Donaldson’s recent decision to collapse power-sharing is going to backfire! As he and his party try so hard for another divisive early election, the Secretary of State will not blink. They will be the focus of voter anger when by May 5th, more and more people face rising living costs, longer waiting lists on the NHS, more and more tragedies within families to mental health, more and more suffering. How much more suffering will the people here take before they finally sock it to Jeffrey and the DUP’s childish games with devolved government?
Only the new direction offered by Doug Beattie and the Ulster Unionist Party looks best set to win over those non-Unionists in promoting the United Kingdom. Unionists need to begin the charm offensive if a border poll is to be won or even for that matter, never to take place. One thing must be stated – Unionists are not going to make nationalists turn into Unionists in huge numbers, if at all. Terrence O’Neill found this out in 1969 with his hope to transform Unionism to promote civil equality and economic strength, with the aim of persuading huge sways of nationalists to support the Union. However, Doug Beattie may finally be the “right messenger at the right time.”