David Whelan attended the UUP Conference 2018 to take the party’s temperature in the wake of the continued absence of Stormont, rapidly changing circumstances around Brexit and the upcoming ‘crunch’ local council elections for the party.
A similar vein ran through the 2018 UUP Conference as was the case in 2017 – a worrying development for a party struggling to sell its brand beyond its core base amidst significant decline.
Held once again in Armagh City Hotel, comparisons between the UUP’s half-day event and the much more extensive agenda of the DUP is somewhat symptomatic of the party’s political fortunes over the last number of years.
Although the conference was well attended, there was a notable absence of new or young faces when compared with the previous gathering. The speakers line-up – rejigged only slightly – addressed common trends such as legacy, Stormont’s absence and Brexit, while leader Robin Swann appeared once again to portray a passive, rather than an proactive, strategy to regaining target votes at the polls.
Swann’s speech was teed up by the contributions of party Chairman Reg Empey, who took swipes at the DUP and Sinn Féin over their handling of power, and MEP Jim Nicholson, who outlined his opposition to the backstop proposal by stating: “We did not stand against joint authority with Dublin only to end up with Dublin and 26 other governments making our decisions for us.”
Something is clear; within the fold, the UUP understand their brand and their offering to the electorate. The problem, however, has been selling that offering to an electorate who continue to opt for their opponents in increasing numbers.
A hope for the party, where their next big test of relevance will be the local council elections of 2019, will be that the absence of Stormont, the revelations of RHI and the outworkings of Brexit will change the voting patterns that have enshrined their decline.
To grow, the UUP will need to take votes back from the DUP and it makes sense that they were the first target of Swann’s criticism. The North Antrim MLA said that “unionism has been dragged into the gutter by the DUP”, and used his platform to also jab at Sinn Féin: “The DUP have created a situation where Sinn Féin of all people are able to call for ‘integrity in government’ and gifted them the opportunity to pull down the institutions.”
Swann outlined his belief that the restoration of devolution could not happen in the short-term: “If openness and transparency are the currency of democracy, the last Executive was bankrupt,” he stated. “If there is no reform of the petition of concern, no brake put on SPADs, no attempt to inject transparency into our Executive, we will find ourselves right back in this mess before long.”
Whilst Swann points to 10 years of Northern Ireland being “run into the ground”, opponents will highlight the UUP’s place on the Northern Ireland Executive until 2015. A further, and more common criticism, concerns the failure of the UUP to create a distinct identity from the DUP on many key policy issues.
The UUP leader did outline some proposed changes to the workings of Stormont, including:
• changing the standing orders of the Executive to ensure “fairness in any future coalitions”;
• expansion of the Assembly Commissioner’s remit to allow for investigations into alleged breaches of the Ministerial Pledge of Office and code of conduct;
• making SPADs accountable to the Northern Ireland Civil Service code of conduct, as well as supporting an independent review of the number, role, remit and salaries of SPADs in comparison to UK counterparts; and
• reform of the petition of concern.
Swann reaffirmed his previous call that with no prospect of devolution then the UK Government must implement direct rule. Speaking to the UK Government, he said: “Stop letting people of Northern Ireland wither on the vine because you’re either too busy looking over your shoulder at the DUP and frozen in fear at the thought of upsetting Sinn Féin sensitivities.”
“If openness and transparency are the currency of democracy, the last Executive was bankrupt.”
Turning to Brexit, Swann described the “foolishly included” backstop proposal as “unacceptable”. His main target for criticism was the Irish Government, warning that maintaining good relationships was difficult when “you continually poke us in the eye”.
Just days after DUP MP Sammy Wilson had accused the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of taking a “sledgehammer” to years of cross-border political relationship-building following his warning of the potential return to violence if a hard border was imposed post-Brexit, Swann said: “I have a message for Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and their colleagues in the Irish Government: Tread carefully.”
“Every day you trample over the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent you do further damage to relationships across these islands. Breaking the Belfast Agreement to facilitate the backstop risks destroying what has taken decades to build.”
One issue on which the UUP has successfully distanced itself from DUP policy is that of legacy and its lack of support for the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU). Swann outlined his desire to see the PSNI, “which has the support of all political parties and across the community”, adequately funded, rather than see the creation of a “parallel police force”.
“We agree that the current situation is intolerable for victims but we cannot stand over these proposals,” he said, suggestion that the HIU equated to moving the workload from one desk to another “at great expense”.
A more dynamic aspect of the conference incorporated contributions from UUP councillors and candidates from each of the 11 local authorities. For many, the controversy currently surrounding the DUP renders the local elections an ideal hunting ground for the UUP. However, how the party delineates success in the upcoming local elections remains to be seen.
Swann used the conference to highlight the positives of a 3 per cent and 7 per cent increase in vote share in the recent West Tyrone Westminster by-election and the Carrick Castle Council by-election respectively, as “not insignificant trajectories”. However, the context to these gains were failures to eat into the DUP vote at council level and growth amongst a rising tide for all parties – with the DUP’s vote increasing 11 per cent to the UUP’s 7 per cent. The irony of celebrating these growths was not lost on some conference on-lookers.
Describing the 2019 election as “a battle to save the union from the DUP”, Swann added: “We must make sure there is no one left in any doubt that it is this party that offers a vision of new unionism that will secure our place in the union through our second century and beyond.” Unfortunately for Swann, this doubt has cemented itself in recent elections with the outcome being unionists largely vote for the DUP. Undoubtedly, this was forefront of his mind as he signed off the 2018 conference with a rallying call to canvassers.
“There are doors to knock, people to convince. So be seen and be heard. This is not the time to be downhearted about the state of politics here, this is the time to be fired up and show that we have what it takes to do better. This is the time to show that we are the alternative. This is the time to show that we aren’t afraid of hard work. This is the time to let everyone know that we the Ulster Unionist Party are the party for the union.”