For over fifty years, the Ulster Unionist Party was arguably the most successful political party in a twentieth century Western democracy, even if its success was in a rather small patch. For just over five decades it never lost an election, seeing off challenges to its right and left as well as the perennial challenge from Irish nationalism. Even after the basis of its political power, Stormont, was prorogued by Edward Heath in 1972 and throughout the murderous times of the Troubles it maintained a predominant position. Yet despite this pedigree, it could not maintain this position as the peace process developed. It declined from being the largest party in Northern Ireland, with hundreds of thousands of votes and 10 MPs, to fighting for third place, struggling even to break 100,000 and having no MPs. Its position as the leading and mainstream Unionist Party was usurped by the Democratic Unionist Party in 2003 and since then Unionist voters have seemed broadly content with that switch.

In response to this crisis, the party has just elected Tom Elliott, a Fermanagh farmer and member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, to turn its fortunes around. His election followed a divisive leadership campaign against fellow Assembly member, Basil McCrea. McCrea set out his stall for the UUP to move in a more liberal direction while Elliott did not set out a clear message. Yet Elliott won a decisive 68% to 32% victory, even if the age profile of his support did not bode well for the future. He has set his goal for the UUP to be the top force of Ulster politics but to do so he will have to learn the lessons of the UUP’s decline. The Belfast Agreement is often see as the alpha and omega of Ulster Unionism’s problems but it was much more deep-rooted than that. The seeds of its decline were sown before ink was put to paper on the Belfast Agreement.

The UUP’s years of success had led to a complacency that blinded it to a steady decline in organisational capability. Its record of constituency work was poor – something of more significance in Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the UK. Indeed, the DUP’s far superior performance in this regard was a key factor in it always avoiding extinction at the hands of the UUP monolith. Decades in power instilled the UUP with the belief that the party and the Union was one and the same thing. Added to this was a ‘Leader’ culture verging on feudalism. A common joke was that if the Party leader proposed a United Ireland, he’d have had the guaranteed support of at least 40% of the party delegates. This inwardness and self-contentment blinded its decision-making to the public mood.

Beyond the party culture, however, and even the evident decay in basic organisation, three main political failures stand out. The UUP first failed to see the changes that were occurring in the SDLP, with John Hume’s greener, pan-Ireland hue being in marked contrast to Gerry Fitt’s openness to an internal, Northern Irish solution. Thus the UUP didn’t grasp the importance of the attempt at administrative devolution in the early 1980’s: something Paisley and the DUP did. Instead, encouraged by Enoch Powell, close friend and trusted adviser to James Molyneaux, they pursued the 1979 Conservative manifesto pledge of integration. Powell mistakenly believed that Thatcher’s personal respect for him extended to policy. But without its primary architect, Airey Neave, brutally murdered by the INLA, the will to implement the policy was not to be found. The normal Tory behaviour of one policy for Ulster in opposition and another in government won through with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) the result. The Agreement and the failure of Unionism to defeat it was the UUP’s second failure. This political emasculation meant that the scales in any future negotiation were not tipped well for Unionism. And it would make any future agreement a difficult sell: Unionist voters knew that 1985 had been a colossal political defeat, and were inevitably going to react harshly to more and still greater failure.

The third failure was in the battle for ideas. Nationalism offered a framework for the solution to Northern Ireland – the so-called three strands (relations within NI, on ‘the island of Ireland’, and, between Dublin and London). Unionism simply didn’t engage. This meant that when the peace process began Nationalism was offering a route map and Unionism wasn’t. This policy drift had been highlighted in a 1987 paper, the Task Force report, jointly produced by leading members of the UUP and DUP (including the now DUP leader Peter Robinson). However, its criticisms were buried and the drift continued.

These cumulative failures of inertia offer a partial explanation of John Major’s humiliation of James Molyneaux. The then UUP leader believed he had Major’s ear as public and secret negotiations were going on to develop what became known as the Framework Documents. This also meant that the UUP did not exercise to any effect the parliamentary muscle it enjoyed due to the declining Tory majority. Sadly, having someone’s ear is only of value if you have something to put into it. Molyneaux didn’t. When the Framework Documents were produced in February 1995, the wholesale adoption of basic nationalist assumptions was as clear as Molyneaux’s failure. Unionism would have to spend its political capital during the next decade or so just talking the government back from this high, green, water mark, before it even contemplated attempting to make political advances.

None of this boded well for how the UUP would perform in the negotiations that would culminate in the Belfast Agreement. But after Molyneaux’s retirement, the UUP placed its faith in the former Queen’s academic, David Trimble, to chart it through the tricky waters of the talks and their results. Their faith was misplaced with Trimble’s many flaws well-documented in Dean Godson’s biography of him.

David Trimble had learned the lesson of the Sunningdale Agreement and its ‘Council of Ireland’ element (something which turned out to be electorally toxic for its Unionist supporters). Hence Trimble focused his efforts on the cross-border aspects of the looming deal, and in the process fatally messed up that the arrangements for devolution, and, still more crucially, the ceasing of terrorist activities and dismantling of their paramilitary structures. The UUP membership did endorse the Agreement 70:30 but the euphoria of the eventual NI referendum result of 71% to 29% masked deeper issues.

Unionist voters were split down the middle and it had taken a major blitz in the final week of the referendum campaign to achieve even that. The first Assembly election a few weeks after the referendum demonstrated the unease, with the UUP losing voters to Bob McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionist Party and various independents. Though this also demonstrated a reluctance for discontented Ulster Unionists to go to Paisley’s minority Democratic Unionist Party.

The UUP’s approach was to consider this loss temporary and that as the Agreement was implemented in line with Trimble’s conception of it, the voters would return to their natural home. However the Agreement-in-operation did not proceed in this happy fashion. Rather, crisis after crisis ensued, with various, stop-gap mini-deals contrived, none of which could sustain the original vision of the inherently flawed Belfast Agreement. This provided ample evidence for the charge that the UUP were capable neither of negotiating on behalf of Unionism, nor of administrating in its interest. Later Trimble’s leadership clique would come to believe that the electoral damage they had done to the UUP could be repaired by going after a group of voters called ‘Garden Centre Prods’. Yet this proved to be wishful thinking which married a misdiagnosis of Unionist turnout problems with fanincful thinking about referendum voters. Unsurprisingly, it failed.

In the UUP’s downfall, there has been one more element worth noting: internal divisions. But this has been blamed for too much, especially by leaders keener to blame their followers than themselves for their party’s misfortunes. There were a number of activists within the UUP who were unhappy with political developments. However, when they ultimately left the UUP for the DUP the majority of their voters came with them. So rather than their presence harming the UUP, it arguably managed to artificially inflate the UUP tally of voters far longer than Trimble’s leadership merited or got gained them. The loss of some UUP MPs who opposed the Agreement is presented as conclusive evidence that a more sceptical position would not have helped the UUP but this ignores the basic point about competence. Unionist voters wanted competent representatives with their interests at heart. Correctness of views was no protection for uselessness. It is underappreciated how much the Unionist electorate was consciously picking and choosing its best team.

In the midst of this the DUP did clear-sightedly appreciate the process underway. It noticed both the reluctance of mainstream Unionist voters to switch to it, and, their heartfelt desire for competent, effective leaders. So it began its process of change – and unlike the jerks of the UUP, it followed the approach of the right amount of change at the right time. It set about broadening beyond the Paisley brand emphasising the strength and depth of its team, with the media role given over to Peter Robinson, Nigel Dodds, Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell. It used its ministerial portfolios to demonstrate competence. It opened an extensive network of constituency offices to build on its already good reputation of work on the ground. It also shifted from outright rejection to seeking the mantle to negotiate on behalf of Unionism which it was given in the 2003 Assembly elections. This dominance was reinforced with even greater victories in the 2004 Euro elections and the 2005 Westminster election.

This repeated decline in votes and loss of its position was something the UUP couldn’t fully comprehend. It continued with the belief that the situation was transitory. It claimed voters had been conned and it was the same old DUP. The ability of the DUP to absorb former UUP representatives and members disproved such flawed analysis. UUP grandees intoned that DUP hicks were incapable of making an Agreement. But the DUP did. It said a DUP-Sinn Fein dominated system couldn’t work. However, while it has never been an easy or simple process to work within the constraints of a mandatory coalition, the Assembly is nearing the end of a full-term without interruption and with more decisions through the Executive than in any previous period of devolution. The square of devolving policing and justice was also successfully squared.

Discreditably, and unappealingly, successive senior Ulster Unionists whined that failings in the peace process were everyone else’s fault – Blair, Adams, internal UUP critics, the media, anyone but themselves in short. Somehow its right moves delivered the wrong results. In message terms it floundered. Once deprived of its position of predominance it was left without a narrative of its own and it has not succeeded in identifying a new one. It relied on the incoherent oppositionalism of not being the DUP. It tried doubling up its pro-Agreement rhetorical with its strongly pro-devolution Assembly campaign in 2007. This delivered its worst Assembly result.

When serial DUP defector Jim Allister started having some success to the DUP’s right with his Traditional Unionist Voice, the UUP’s ultra-Agreementism was inexplicably ditched with it trying to tag along with the Allister attack lines. To add to the confusion the UUP went back to the past trying to renew links with the Conservative party under the name from the ninth circle of brand hell – Ulster Conservatives and Unionists New Force (UCUNF). It hoped some of the Cameron sparkle would fall onto it but it caused new internal rows and the loss of its sole remaining MP, Sylvia Hermon. By this year’s general election, this two-faced approach became three-faced when the UUP did a partial deal with the DUP, accepting an agreed candidate with in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, while rejecting the same rationale for Unionist unity in South Belfast.

By the time the 2010 Westminster election came around the UUP hadn’t noticed that Cameron’s sparkle wasn’t working on the mainland, never mind in Ulster. Also the way it presented the deal demonstrated a fundamental flaw in their thinking – it was all about them not the voters. ‘At the heart of government’ and ‘people at the Cabinet table’ seemed to be about restoring them to some supposed rightful place rather than what it could deliver for their would-be voters. It almost appeared that when faced with defeat in Northern Ireland it wanted to take its football away and find another pitch. The policy pledges it had got from the Conservatives were wafer thin. This view became solidified whenever Cameron appeared to single out Northern Ireland and the North-East of England for extra cuts in a Newsnight interview.

By the end, UUP arguments were either ineffectual or neutered. There were puerile attempts to characterise the DUP as ‘Ulster nationalists’ (demonstrating their internal logic that only Ulster Unionists are real Unionists). Whereas the more agile and responsive DUP identified a number of vulnerabilities and acted to neuter them, such double jobbing MP/MLAs and on expenses. The UUP attacks did not adapt to this. The result was the worst Westminster performance in its history.

It is into Tom Elliott’s lap that all this has fallen. Around him is a party machine that has seen further decline since 1998. Behind him are party apparatchiks who supported his leadership campaign but are rightly characterised as the ‘cabal’: the people of influence who presided and contributed to the party’s period of decline. By his side are the mainly male, elderly and rural members who voted for him, while the younger, more liberal, East Ulster based activists who backed his opponent, Basil McCrea, sourly sulk. The only uniting factor is a dislike of the DUP: even if that hermeneutic dislike no longer tallies with ordinary, mainstream Unionist voters’ perceptions of the DUP. These issues alone could eat up all of a new leader’s time. Unfortunately Elliott has many more fundamental issues to address.

The party needs to end its self-justificatory position on the peace process and admit the errors its lost voters long since convicted it of. The party needs a new and distinctive narrative which is relevant to voters, and is one that its representatives can convincingly sell. The party needs to accept its decline is not a temporary situation but a generational shift. The party needs to stop imagining that its internal prejudices are shared by the Unionist electorate. The party needs to demonstrate that it is competent. It needs to develop a culture of discipline. It needs to engage in and win the battle of ideas in terms of the policy competencies of the Assembly. Its needs to gain a reputation for constituency work. And the UUP needs a coherent and sensible approach to Unionist co-operation.

If the UUP manages to do most of these things, realistically it will more likely make it better competition for the DUP, rather than guarantee its restoration as the leading party of Unionism. If it fails to finally rescue itself, it will remain what it is at present: a cautionary tale for all democratic politicians about how not to behave, whatever your past glories.

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