It’s taking a while for gentle reflection to replace the initial knee-jerk hysteria following Northern Ireland’s results last week, but here we go...first the positives:
1. Over 100,000 voters, for whatever reason, voted for "Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force".
2. The candidates chosen to represent the Conservatives and Unionists in Northern Ireland, by and large, represented a break from what is regarded as "traditional" Unionism.
3. Several of candidates performed credibly in the less than ideal circumstances.
4. For the first time, in a very long-time, a non-parochial, secular, pan-UK, pro-Union message was being broadcast in an Ulster election campaign.
5. No MPs were elected under the CU banner.
I can imagine the vast majority of you with points 1-4 will have been thinking "Yes, perhaps, but..."
The vast majority of you reading point 5) will be thinking "Yep, confirmed, O’Neill’s finally lost it".
Dealing firstly with your (presumed) answer to points 1-4, let me finish your reply:
"Yes, perhaps, but...you won no seats, you polled less votes than before, the DUP are now the undisputed voice of Ulster Unionism".
And you'd be right on all three counts. I could throw a Brechtian fit here and say "Not to worry though, before next time, we’ll change the electorate for one more enlightened that has a better understanding of what we’re trying to achieve here", but it would be much more beneficial to outline a basic truth behind last week’s results.
Weak leadership? Well, yes, but that’s only the sympton of the real reason which is Sir Reg could only lead a party where the majority of its members wanted to go. There is a substantial number within the UUP (and probably a majority of the candidates last week) who genuinely believe in trying to change the pro-Union message being delivered to the public; when the Conservatives decided to join in promoting that message, it seemed like a godsend to those of us who believed in a pan-UK, non-communal form of Unionism. A "substantial number" but not nearly enough to prevent the communal candidate being agreed with the DUP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and make no mistake, if the Hatfield Talks were the beginning of the end for the whole principle behind the UCUNF, then Rodney Connor was the final big nail in its coffin. When the going got tough (as it always was going to do when the DUP inevitably played the "Unity" card) then it was back to the tried and trusted red, white and blue trenches. Weak leadership on Sir Reg's part to "allow" it to happen? Again, yes, but again, what was his real choice when the party in FST, from Tom Elliott downwards had no interest in pushing the new message?
Your presumed answers to points 1-4 focus on the fact that the electorate has rejected the UCUNF message; the UUP management ultimately proved with the joint candidate in FST that it had effectively rejected the UCUNF message and when the manufacturer of a product displays no confidence in its unique selling point then, however attractive the salespeople may be, the public are never going to buy it, simple as that. With no "Unity" candidate in FST would the Conservatives and Unionists polled better elsewhere? In all honesty, maybe not this time, but the project was always sold as a long-term one and long-term fighting every seat, as previously promised, would have given us a fighting chance at establishing a credible base for the future. But it wasn't to be and the hard truth for those of us who want to see a true pan-United Kingdom, secular Unionism taking hold in Northern Ireland is that the UUP, in its present form, is incapable of delivering our aim. That's the thinking behind my 5th point; a Nesbitt, Ringland, Trimble, Bradshaw, Parsley etc being elected this time would have merely hidden for a little while longer that unpalatable fact.
The advantage of last week's result is we now know where we stand, no short-term euphoria to cloud the fact. The clamour for more longer-term and substantial form of "Unionist Unity" is only going to grow and that means for many of us a hell of a lot of serious thinking and soul-searching ahead. That "Unity" is not going to deliver the Unionism those of us who genuinely believed in the UCUNF concept craved, that's a cast-iron certainty. On the other hand, it's also true, despite all the self-inflicted setbacks, over the last couple of years, solid foundations for an alternative have been laid - it's just depressing that at this present moment, I have no idea how we can now move it on to the next stage.