Bertie Ahern has written a lengthy platform piece for the News Letter, a Belfast unionist newspaper, acknowledging that unionist concerns with the Windsor Framework are “sincere and need to be addressed”, while urging the DUP to restore devolution.
The former taoiseach referred to the “balanced accommodation” of the Belfast Agreement and called for the same approach today.
“Successful negotiations always end in compromise,” he wrote. “Often the most difficult conversations are not with your opponent across the negotiating table, but rather with your own side.”
That line was unsubtle, even if it was offered as a gentle nudge. Negotiations on the Windsor Framework have concluded, leaving unionists to argue over how to reconcile themselves to their strategic Brexit mistake. This is an argument unionism badly needs to have but, even now, there is little sign of it – only an awkward silence, as DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson waits for events to change the subject. Council elections take place in two weeks, close to the assembly’s summer recess, so autumn is now considered a realistic schedule to slink back to work.
It should be straightforward for unionism to have a difficult conversation with itself about Brexit, as its party system is almost perfectly set up for it. The DUP campaigned to leave the EU, has rejected nearly every idea agreed since by London and Brussels, and is boycotting Stormont until unspecified improvements are made to the Windsor Framework. The UUP backed Remain, proposed many of the ideas agreed by London and Brussels (although this will have had little influence), and wants Stormont restored immediately. The TUV appeals to people who fear that the DUP secretly agrees with the UUP. Everyone has a party to vote for, yet unionism has frozen on the spot.
While criticism of the DUP’s leadership is commonplace, the UUP has been a matching failure. Doug Beattie’s party should have provided pro-union remainers with a home and unhappy DUP supporters with an alternative. Instead, it has hedged its bets and mixed its messages from the start.
Beattie deserves only some of the blame. He is the UUP’s fourth leader since the EU referendum, taking office in 2021. All four pitched different, muddled policies on Brexit, as did the late David Trimble, greatly adding to public confusion as he was often wrongly assumed to speak for the UUP.
In many ways, it is remarkable the party’s support has held up at a consistent 12 per cent since 2016, still its level in opinion polls this week.
Received wisdom is that UUP voters are drifting to Alliance. This is overstated; Alliance’s growth is driven by new voters. The UUP’s glaring problem is failing to attract voters drifting away from the DUP. Such people tend to stop voting, or jump to Alliance, or more typically switch to the TUV, although the latter must often be a protest vote and not beyond the UUP’s reach.
There is no large-scale switching from the DUP to the UUP, however, as might be expected between the two mainstream parties of unionism. This is despite the DUP suffering a multiyear Brexit fiasco and an epic leadership contest meltdown. Whatever the UUP’s shortcomings, the law of Buggins’ turn should have begun to apply. That it has not must be due in large part to the race for first minister.
Many unionist voters are sticking with the DUP as it has an outside chance of becoming Stormont’s largest party again, unlike the UUP. Under the original rules of the Belfast Agreement, before they were changed at St Andrews in 2006, unionism would have held the post of first minister as the largest community designation. Its voters could have switched between parties without fretting about having the largest party overall, or having any parties larger than any nationalist party. Instead, the DUP has corralled voters around it and condemned unionism to stagnation.
So potent is the symbolic first minister’s title that the damage of its allure is spreading. The DUP is campaigning in the council elections to stop Sinn Féin becoming the largest party, although that would have negligible impact on unionism in local government.
Reform of Stormont, a subject rising up the agenda, has focused on removing the vetoes of the largest parties.
Perhaps this tricky problem should be approached as a subsidiary issue to the contest for first minister. The vetoes would matter less if unionists and nationalists felt freer to change their largest parties.
The DUP boycott has created a suspicion among nationalists and others that unionists simply will not accept Sinn Féin winning an election. This perception is toxic and must be debunked, so reform has to wait until Stormont is restored under current rules.
After that, there should be a difficult conversation about how the race for first minister has strangled what potential Stormont has for healthy democratic competition.