I had long advocated that, if the Ulster Unionists were unhappy with the governance arrangements in Northern Ireland or with their Executive colleagues, they should have the courage to leave and go into opposition.
Unfortunately, however, that is not what they did yesterday.
There are two types of politics – the politics of government, and the politics of elections. It is quite possible to take an interest in and be good at one, while being entirely uninterested in and hopeless at the other. Departure from the Executive should have been about the politics of government; but the Ulster Unionists made it about the politics of elections.
As I noted on Twitter immediately after the recent murder of Kevin McGuigan, we found out nothing in the aftermath that we did not know beforehand. Gangland murders by organised groups the same as those who were active in the Troubles – in the Shankill, in Belvoir and in the Markets – had been a regular (though, it has be said, comparatively rare) occurrence. Of course, these organisations all have certain links with certain politicians. However, each one of these murders including the most recent was condemned by all Executive parties (indeed, Mr McGuigan’s family were visited in the direct aftermath by the local Sinn Fein representative). So it is simply not credible for the Ulster Unionists to pretend they found out something this week that they did not know a month or a year ago.
Departure from the Executive should have been about the politics of government. The Ulster Unionists could, perfectly legitimately, have said that they had taken the summer to decide what to do – and, given the nonsensical position on welfare and the budget demonstrated that the structures (and perhaps even the parties operating them) were no longer fit for purpose, they had decided to force the issue of Opposition by forming one to give the voters a real choice. However, that is not what they said.
Instead, they made it clearly about the politics of elections. Their statement (and subsequent positions taken in interviews) give absolutely no demonstration whatsoever of how this move helps deliver results on the issues they claim to care about; nor is there even the remotest clarity about exactly what the NIO or other parties could or should do in order for the Ulster Unionists to return to the Executive (a long-term problem for them). The implicit notion that the they will return to the Executive once they are the largest party demonstrates this is a purely electoral manoeuvre. (It is a risky one, too – allowing “Republican” gangsters to dictate when a Unionist party leaves government can hardly work out well for Unionism.)
There is nothing wrong, by the way, with electoral manoeuvres, and while I accept much of the criticism of the Ulster Unionists, I think it is inaccurate to say they have endangered the institutions (and, even if they have, it will hardly be a vote loser given the way the public feel about them currently). What they have done, however, is missed a real opportunity to deliver on improving the way devolution works; in fact, they have done precisely the contrary, making themselves a total irrelevance to any (much needed) discussion about how the structures can be improved and inter-party relationships around the Executive table improved.
This does not mean the other parties have not been presented with a strategic problem, as was the intention. It is uncertain how they will respond, and how this will play electorally. However, it is hard to see how this move actually helps deliver anything other than uncertainty in practical terms – with welfare still gridlocked, education and health reforms going nowhere, and the global economy taking another buffering.
The Ulster Unionists, therefore, have made the right move – but for entirely the wrong reason. The results will not be pretty.