David Blackburn

A defeat for the Ulster Unionist modernisers is a worry for the DUP

A defeat for the Ulster Unionist modernisers is a worry for the DUP
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Tom Elliott won't match Arthur Wellesley's eminence, but the new leader of the Ulster Unionists joins Ulster’s long tradition of soldier politicians. Elliott thumped rival Basil McCrea by 68 percent to 32 percent of the vote. He has a mandate to weld a party that has grown dissolute through faction. It's a tall order: the May election arguably tolled the death knell for Unionism’s dominance of Northern Irish politics.

To succeed, the UUP must broaden its base. Elliot is an unabashed Orangeman and traditionalist. The Irish Times reports that Elliott ‘would not attend a GAA match or gay pride march, and in one radio interview last week pointedly refused to unequivocally offer an opinion as to who he wanted to win the All-Ireland final between  Down and Cork.’  

By rejecting Basil McCrea’s modernisation programme so comprehensively, the UUP has given itself little ideological room for manoeuvre. Consequently, it is unlikely to attract voters from the centrist Alliance party or forge closer ties with the SDLP. 

So, I disagree with the excellent Slugger O’Toole: the DUP will not greet Elliott’s victory with a smile. Elliott has nowhere else to go but try to displace the DUP. To do this, the UUP will have to rediscover its distinct identity as the champion of the Unionist working class. That means opposing cuts and restoring the soft-socialism of its past because the public sector accounts for 35 percent of Northern Ireland’s economy. The putative alliance with the Conservative and Unionist Party would degenerate under such strain, but that could bring Sylvia Hermon and the other rebels back to the old confession.

Ironically, the UUP’s absence at Westminster is a blessing in this fight. The DUP's 8 MPs will not  be able to limit the cuts that are coming to Northern Ireland. The UUP could benefit.