Unionism is the problem not its leadership

Posted By: May 14, 2021

Former submarine commander Steve Aiken has stepped down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Tom Collins.Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, May 13, 2021

Is it any wonder unionism is in the state it’s in today? From James Craig onwards it has been led by inept and blinkered individuals, incapable of living up to the needs of the moment.

In recent times, the UUP has burned its way through more leaders than effigies of Lundy. Rather than holding a leadership election, they’d be better off working through their MLAs in alphabetical order. Buggins’ Turn would be no less effective.

Steve Aiken may have been deemed a safe pair of hands by the Royal Navy, which allowed him to sail around the world in a tin can armed with nuclear weapons; but the UUP has defied his navigational skills. More fool him for trying.

Like its DUP cousin, the UUP is unmanageable: a vessel without a rudder, with a crew that has lost any trace of confidence in what it is doing.

The commander, who rose without trace, has now downed periscope. His successor will fare no better without a significant change of course. The evidence of the past 100 years, however, suggests that is an impossibility.

At every point when a choice has had to be made, unionism has made the wrong one – even clutching defeat from the victory of the Good Friday Agreement, and trashing sensible measures to give parity of esteem to the traditions which inhabit this place.

At least Aiken had enough self-awareness to know his time was up; unlike Arlene Foster. Her incompetence in office was not just too much for DUP opponents, it became too much for her party too.

When history looks back on these days, it will record that it was Foster and the DUP which was responsible for the border down the Irish Sea, not Steve Aiken. But he was complicit in the diminution of unionism’s position in the politics of these islands.

The UUP had an opportunity to provide a sensible voice for unionism – to speak for business, jobs and enterprise, to speak up for the dispossessed on loyalist sink estates, and to work with other parties on redressing the wrongs of educational underachievement.

Instead they chose to shadow DUP policies, lest they be thought of as ‘not unionist enough’.

A weakening of ties to the UK was the inevitable cost of Aiken’s failure to hold the DUP to account and to promote a soft Brexit as being in Northern Ireland’s and Britain’s best interests.

With Ash for Cash, the skids were already under Foster. Aiken should have known that one of those moments of political opportunity was about to arrive for his party.

But, by failing to provide a reasoned and articulate alternative leadership to the DUP, the main beneficiary of voter frustration has been the Alliance Party and its able leader Naomi Long. She understands the unionist electorate better than Aiken and Foster combined.

Indeed, I’d go as far as saying Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood have a better grip on the real needs of the vast majority of unionists.

The constitution, and robust discussion about it, is not a threat to unionism. The biggest threat to the unionist electorate is incompetence in economic management, unwillingness to embrace the opportunities presented by the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the refusal of their elected politicians to work with their counterparts in the Irish Republic on key issues such as trade, transport and health.

There’s a saying that people vote with their feet.

For a generation, the brightest from families that traditionally voted unionist, have left these shores for their education and not returned. They are generating jobs in GB, not Northern Ireland; they’re leading global companies; working in the media and arts; they are thought leaders for communities that are not their own. Some have been driven out by prejudice over their sexuality or life choices they cannot make back home.

Reverting to type, unionism is about to be convulsed in a debate about the protocol – gifted to them by a prime minister it helped into office.

Once again, they will be wasting their time – and everyone else’s – on a fruitless debate. Like Sisyphus forlornly pushing his rock up the mountain, unionism is doomed to failure unless it faces up to this reality: it is best served by accepting we are no longer living in the 1690s, but the 2020s.

Unionism as a political concept is unfit for purpose because it does not meet the basic human needs of those it purports to represent. Or, to put it another way, ‘you cannot eat a flag’. Unionism needs a new ideology, not new leaders.