The BBC are reporting that the Conservatives originally wanted to merge with the UUP and set up a new party in Northern Ireland called the Northern Ireland Conservative and Unionist Party (NICUP), but the UUP vetoed this, and opted instead for the strange hybrid called the UCUNF.
This goes some way towards explaining why the negotiations between the Tories and the UUP took so long, to achieve so little. It may also explain why some NI Tories were so unhappy with the outcome.
If the report is true, it demonstrates two important points; firstly, that the UUP remain 'little Ulsterists', more concerned to maintain their existence as a minor regional fringe party than to actually join the mainstream of UK politics; and secondly, that the UUP think that their position is stronger than it actually is.
The UUP is in serious danger of sinking – it is almost bankrupt, its share of the vote is falling, it has only one MP and risks becoming only the fourth largest party in a small pocket of marginal territory, and its message is indistinct and almost irrelevant. Yet, when a White Knight rides into view, instead if grasping the opportunity and using it to regain some support and relevance, it acts like a spoilt child, and demands everything it wants.
Well, the English Tories have put up with its spoilt tantrums for now, most probably for tactical reasons relating to Scotland rather than Northern Ireland, but it is very unlikely that they will forget about the snub they received. Snubbing a suitor may be sensible if you are in a position of choice and strength, but the UUP is in neither position. The Tories are a major party, with seventy times the electoral support that the UUP received. Although deeply in debt, they have access to resources the UUP can only dream about. Most importantly, they will probably form the next UK government.
And yet the UUP felt that they could refuse their offer of a merger!
This was an appallingly bad decision by the UUP, and one that will hopeful have enormously negative consequences for them. The UUP's hubris may well spell their demise as an electoral force. This would be no great loss for Northern Ireland, as the UUP have consistently played a negative and divisive role, but it would leave the DUP as the predominant unionist party, with a virtual monopoly of the unionist vote. For that reason alone the UUP is necessary at this point – a split unionist vote is always preferable to a united voice. Only time wil tell if the TUV can grow to occupy the right-wing unionist space that the DUP may start to vacate as it absorbs the UUP's place. These are interesting times on the unionist side of Northern Ireland's divided house – amongst the questions of interest to nationalists is whether unionism is splitting into an increasing number of parties (DUP, UUP, TUV, Tories, …) or starting to coalesce into a single dominant party as in the past.