I am not sure anyone noticed the UUP Conference at the weekend, which is why I chose not to blog about its Leader’s well delivered but frankly incredibly contradictory speech. There is a simpler way to tell the UUP has learned nothing from its on-going downward spiral: its indecision over whether to run in the Mid-Ulster by-election.
There is nothing less impressive to the electorate than overt indecision. Voters have to wonder about a party which thinks so little of its own relevance that it chooses not even to contest elections; and they have to wonder about the type of leadership likely to be delivered by a party which cannot make a simple decision such as whether to run its own candidates. Worse still, its Leader comes across as if he himself thinks he is playing a cunning game – yet the rest of the world looks on bewildered, knowing there is nothing cunning about ensuring your own party’s electoral oblivion! That the indecision is overt – frequently covered in the press – now means the party is damned either way.
It is worth noting the Magherafelt-Armagh corridor, much of which falls within the constituency, is a tough place with a particularly tragic history. It suffered severely during the post-Plantation violence; it suffered greater population loss than anywhere else in Ulster during the Famine; it suffered more grief than any other rural area during the Troubles. Its economic fortunes have also sunk faster than anywhere else in Northern Ireland. If there is any one place you can understand instinctive sectarianism on a historical basis, this is it. The issue is not whether it is right or wrong to seek pacts of various kinds; the issue is that fact that the UUP is once again embroiled in overt division and indecision over it – and the DUP is only too happy to continue to spring the trap.
The decision whether to run should, in fact, have been obvious, but it too late now. As so often, history provides the clue. The Alliance Party took a full decade to come back from its own decision not to run candidates in two key constituencies at the 2001 General Election – and pro-Agreement pacts were unquestionably more justifiable than blatantly sectarian pacts are now. It is always better to run that not run, even if you suspect you will be slaughtered. Your own voters may be willing to switch to other candidates for their own tactical reasons, but you must at least give them the option – they won’t forgive you for taking the option of voting for their own party away from them, whether or not they intended to use it.
Nevertheless, the UUP is now damned either way. Now, if it does run, the candidate will be accused of being of so little ability that her own Leader could not instantly endorse her; if it doesn’t run, those who suspect it has nothing to offer that the DUP does not already offer will be vindicated. That is even before considering the inevitable damage to electoral prospects (in Mid-Ulster and elsewhere).
The fact is the UUP is admitting it may as well not run. If there is any greater indictment of a party than that, I’m not sure what it is.