When the common-law marriage of the UUP and the English Tories was announced, its creation – UCUNF – was announced as a means to drag Northern Ireland towards 'normal' politics (but strictly British, of course – 'normal', to the promoters of the project means 'unionist').
However, a recent article in the Impartial Observer (Fermanagh's local unionist newspaper), blogged by Fermanagh Tory Seymour Major, gives the game away. UCUNF was not really about introducing left-right, socialist-capitalist politics, where people would argue about public services or economic development.
No, the creation of UCUNF was designed to co-opt Catholics to the unionist cause.
In the article, UCUNF's selected candidate, Tom Elliot, admits that 'he may not “yet” attract the Catholic vote', but that "we will be working to convince voters from a Roman Catholic background that their interests are best served within the United Kingdom rather than an all-Ireland set up".
Quite how Elliot, a former County Grand Master of the Orange Order and former member of the UDR, expects to attract Catholic votes is a mystery. Even stranger is the fact that a party whose new slogan is "Vote for Change" would select an old-fashioned compromised unionist candidate who represents precisely no change from the intransigence of the past. If this is the best candidate that the 'joint selection committee' of the UUP and the Tories could come up with, it bodes ill for their future hopes.
Seymour Major agrees: "One criterion for selection of the candidate should be an ability to connect with voters of both communities and a confidence that he/she can and will attract voters from the Catholic community in the forthcoming General election. Such a person should also be able to express themselves confidently to the press. It is hoped that Mr. Elliott’s lack of confidence is a “one-off.” If that turns out not to be the case, then the joint committee will have plenty of explaining to do".
Readers of the blog will know that the demographic tide is flowing strongly in favour of a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland within a generation. In general unionists dismiss such predictions with distain. The newly admitted raison d'être of UCUNF, as explained by Mr Elliot, implies that behind their distain some unionists know that the predictions are correct. It has always been this blog's opinion that unless unionism could genuinely re-invent itself as a civic (rather than tribal) movement, it was destined to lose the battle. A small minority of unionists know this to be true, but they must convince the majority who are imbued with the tribalism of their past. By selecting Elliot UCUNF are demonstrating that so far it is the UUP and the tribalists who have the upper hand.
Unfortunately for UCUNF there is a basic problem at the heart of the project. Civic politics must take serious account of two things: the Irish identity of around half of Northern Ireland's people, and the fact that Northern Ireland shares an island with the rest of Ireland. These two things render traditional unionism, with its irrational dislike of things Irish, incompatible with civic politics. In order to practice civic politics, politicians would have to actually promote and practice closer cooperation and integration with the south. In order to improve the circumstances and the prospects of Northern Ireland civic politics requires more north-southery, not less. The unionist dream, in which Northern Ireland drifts closer to Britain, and the south fades into irrelevance is, frankly, nonsense – and trying to dress this dream up in 'civic' clothes doesn't make it less nonsense.
So far UCUNF and the so-called civic unionists have failed to explain how their new 'non-sectarian' politics will build on political, social, economic, sporting and cultural ties with the south. Instead they fantasise about northern unionists sitting in the British cabinet and about making Northern Ireland more British than before. By doing so, they simply prove that there is no such thing as civic unionism, there is only polite tribal unionism.
Trying to co-opt Catholics to their cause remains their only remaining line of defence, but their actions to date demonstrate that they have not managed to suppress their essentially tribal instincts, and most intelligent Catholics will see that.