“Submarine Steve’’ plumbs new depths for rudderless unionism

Posted By: April 03, 2021

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, April 3, 2021


IT IS a truth universally acknowledged that unionism habitually prefers tactical, short-term measures rather than adopting a strategic approach. This tendency has been evident over recent months in response to the Irish Sea border and the rapidly shifting political and demographic landscape.


But it’s hard to find a more glaring example of an impulsive, ill-thought-out political maneuver than the Ulster Unionists’ decision to fall in behind the rest of political unionism in calling for the resignation of Chief Constable Simon Byrne.


Up until Thursday evening, amid a reignited storm around last June’s funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey, the UUP had adopted a critical but moderate line on the attendant policing operation and the subsequent failure to bring any prosecutions against 24 Sinn Féin representatives for Covid regulation breaches.


In the aftermath of the chief constable’s appearance before the Policing Board, however, UUP leader Steve Aiken withdrew his party’s support for Mr. Byrne and other high-ranking colleagues on the basis that the “senior leadership of the PSNI has failed, and no longer has the support of much of our community”.


Mr. Aiken then went on the radio yesterday morning to defend the surprise shift in party thinking. What followed must surely have made even the South Antrim MLA’s most ardent detractors feel pity for him, while Arlene Foster is likely to have listened to the interview in a state of uncontrollable glee, as ‘Submarine Steve’ plumbed uncharted depths of bluster and inconsistency. Yet another opportunity to present the UUP as more sensible and strategic than its larger rival went begging in an hour of excruciating airtime.


The Nolan Show interview highlighted the holes in UUP thinking.


It made for great entertainment but it should also be a cause for concern. Mrs. Foster is only nominally leader of the DUP, while after yesterday Mr. Aiken’s limited credibility is in shreds. That’s a significant chunk of the electorate – though notably not “half the population” as the UUP leader claimed unionists represented – lacking a credible figurehead.


While the two big unionist parties will reject accusations that they are currently slavishly following TUV leader Jim Allister’s lead, it’s an assessment that’s hard to disagree with. Unfortunately, though, the very capable Mr. Allister is a protest politician, providing an electoral focus for those who pine for the days of unionist supremacy, when power-sharing could be thwarted by mass rallies and power cuts. He has no long-term solutions or viability.


This situation presents not only political problems but also potential security issues. The vacuum created by a lack of unionist leadership allows disillusioned loyalists and their establishment allies to claim there is nothing left for them in the political process. The devolved institutions are already in an uneasy place yet almost daily unionism’s death wish tendencies greatly increase the likelihood that they will crash. That would be bad news for everybody, but it would likely plunge unionism deeper into crisis. With Stormont gone, God knows what short-term tactics would then be deployed?