In recent hours, Upper Bann MLA, Doug Beattie has been elected as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). He was the only candidate for the leadership of the UUP. According to BBC, ‘Upper Bann MLA Doug Beattie has been elected as the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)… It comes after Steve Aiken announced his decision to step down as party leader after less than two years in the job… He said he had taken the party as far as he could’.
In recent years, the UUP has struggled to fend off the challenge posed by its fellow unionists and rivals, the DUP. Despite leading Northern Ireland alongside the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), it began losing votes to the DUP following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, whilst the SDLP lost votes to its nationalist counterparts, Sinn Féin, from the early 2000s onwards.
This meant that instead of the UUP and SDLP leading a power-sharing Executive following the Good Friday Agreement, in recent years, the DUP and Sinn Féin have led the power-sharing Executive. ‘Nominations for the leadership closed at 12:00 BST on Monday… The election has yet to be formally ratified by a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Party council at the end of May… The party – once led by Good Friday peace agreement negotiator and former NI first minister, David Trimble – lost its Westminster seats in the 2017 general election’.
The BBC elaborated further by saying that, ‘at a press conference in Stormont on Monday, Mr. Beattie said he felt ‘the weight of expectation on my shoulder… He said the party was a modernising one that wants to reach out by reforming its structures, bringing in more women and young people’.
According to Doug Beattie, ‘we know there are some mammoth tasks ahead of us, not least the Northern Ireland Protocol and we will look to see how we can address that… All of these things will feed into a degree of instability which is affecting Northern Ireland… But he said the UUP would ‘stay stable’… He said the Northern Ireland Executive and the assembly is ‘fractious’ and it ‘won’t take much to tip it over the edge’… Mr Beattie told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme that the Northern Ireland Protocol, the post-Brexit arrangement for Northern Ireland which places a border in the Irish Sea, is here to stay and cannot be voted away.
He reiterated that it is damaging for the Good Friday Agreement… He said he wanted a solution that did not place a hard border either in the Irish Sea or on the island of Ireland’. The BBC said that ‘one of the tasks he faces is getting rid of the Brexit protocol, which may require him to work closely with the incoming DUP leader Edwin Poots…
Beattie has also said that ‘we will look for policies that are progressive, we will look for a union of people over the coming months and years we will make Northern Ireland work’… Mr Beattie said there was ‘clear blue water’ between the DUP and UUP… That’s good for unionism and that gives unionism a choice… Those disenfranchised unionists, who are more centre or centre right, may find a home in the Ulster Unionist Party’.
In summary, Doug Beattie's appointment as leader of the UUP is yet to be confirmed, as it is to be ratified by a special UUP meeting at the end of May. As he is the only candidate for the leadership of the party, it is highly unlikely that his appointment as leader will not be ratified. It also remains to be seen whether he is able to turn around the electoral problems that the UUP have experienced in recent elections.
Beattie has a huge challenge ahead of him in turning around the electoral prospects of the UUP, as a brand of so-called liberal unionism, in opposition to the more extreme right-wing version of unionism espoused by the DUP. The UUP currently only holds 10 out of the 90 Assembly seats, whilst it has not had a Westminster seat since winning 2 seats in the 2015 general election. Therefore, it must urgently revive its electoral prospects if it is to remain a relevant voice for moderate unionism. Combined with this, it has lost its prestige as the largest unionist party since the early 2000s, as the more extreme DUP have surpassed the UUP in popularity.
In recent years, despite being the lead unionist party that was in opposition to Leave in the Brexit referendum, it has been unable to articulate a remain voice, as its MPs, at the time, were in favour of Brexit. Previous leader, Steve Aiken was unable to revive the electoral prospects of the UUP, and stepped down after less than two years as leader of the UUP, which means that it is likely to be just as big a challenge for Doug Beattie.
It is intriguing to see the stance of Beattie on the Northern Ireland Protocol as he wants the Northern Ireland Protocol to be maintained which is in clear opposition to the stance of the DUP, who vehemently oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is also in opposition to the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) led by Jim Allister, who is a strong opponent of this Protocol. It is also intriguing that Beattie wants the UUP to be a home for those that are disenfranchised unionists, who are more centrist or centre right. All of these challenges must be addressed by the leadership of Beattie who has only got around 12 months until his first election as UUP leader, in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections.