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Can Steve Aiken save the Ulster Unionist Party?

The UUP's new leader on electoral pacts with the DUP, saving the union and devolution, his party's future, and his priorities for a hung parliament.

Can anything or anyone save the Ulster Unionists? No party in the United Kingdom has suffered quite so precipitous a fall this century. Though older than Northern Ireland itself – and having led its governments for more than half of its 98 years of existence – it is increasingly difficult to imagine the UUP, punished by much of its electorate for its role in delivering the Good Friday Agreement and long supplanted by the Democratic Unionist Party, playing anything more than a marginal role in its political future. 

The UUP enters this election with no MPs, having lost the two it regained in 2015 at the last election. It is now only the fourth-biggest party in the mothballed Stormont Assembly. In May it lost its seat in the European Parliament – a berth as old as the institution itself – replaced by an Alliance Party, which looks more and more like the happiest home for voters of a liberal unionist disposition. Earlier this month, Steve Aiken, a former Royal Navy submarine commander, became its third leader in as many years. The 57-year-old was elected unopposed. 

But did his mission to restore his party as a serious electoral contender end with his coronation? Aiken's first act as UUP leader came before his formal acclamation. Many within political unionism thought it heretical, if not suicidal. He promised that his party would run candidates in all 18 of Northern Ireland's Westminster constituencies. DUP leader Arlene Foster accused him of conspiring to hand North Belfast, where Nigel Dodds is defending a slender majority of 2,081, to Sinn Fein. Initially, Aiken stood firm. The UUP's larger rival, he claimed, had "besmirched unionism with its corruption and sleaze". Better no unionist MP than one whose presence would weaken the union. 

Aiken's defiant stand did not last a week. Pressure from across political unionism – including from some quarters of his own party – forced him into an unedifying U-turn. Threats were made to UUP staff by loyalist paramilitaries. The result is that there will only be 16 UUP candidates on 12 December, two of whom might win. But, having already failed to make good on the bold promise that looked set to define his leadership, Aiken now faces an altogether more probing question: what is the point? 

Undaunted, Aiken still believes he can rescue unionism from the DUP. And his ultimate ambition is greater still – remaking a Northern Ireland whose place in the UK seems less secure than at almost any point since its foundation in 1921. At a near-empty UUP headquarters in East Belfast one evening last week, he told the New Statesman why he believes it is possible - and just how he and any Ulster Unionist returned to Westminster next month intend to do it. Some of his responses have been edited for clarity and length. 

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NS: How would you describe your unionism, in your own words?

Steve Aiken: I’m a strong believer in the union because I believe in the United Kingdom – the United Kingdom of the 21st century. I believe in a union where there are women’s rights, where there is marriage equality.

I’ve got two grown-up kids who now live in Scotland because they believe in modern Britain. And one of the reasons they don’t like the idea of coming back to Northern Ireland is because they like modern Britain. We export every year about 30 per cent of our kids who pass their A-levels and go to universities in England, Scotland and Wales. From all identities in Northern Ireland. They go to Great Britain and they love it, and they don’t come back, because they get jobs, and they like modern Britain.

And for me, as someone who believes passionately in the union, that idea of modern Britain – if we could export that idea to Northern Ireland and have that idea across the place, it would probably take a large degree of the constitutional question out of it.

I used to be chief executive of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, and I lived in Dublin. Dublin is a fantastic city, but the problems with the costs of rent, the costs of childcare – those sorts of things, to me, say why we’re very much better off being part of the United Kingdom.

I served in the Royal Navy for 30-odd years, commanded nuclear submarines, I’ve been all around the world. I’ve lived throughout the United Kingdom and I think it’s a great place, and Northern Ireland can be a great place. And that’s what drives my unionism. But my idea of unionism is a broad church. I hate using the word "church" in Northern Ireland because it’s always the wrong context. Because on many issues we would be naturally slightly left-of-centre. We would see ourselves when we’re looking at issues to do with welfare, with education, with the National Health Service – we would see ourselves as broadly along those lines.

For many years British politics was about pragmatism – who could be more pragmatic than the other. It was a degree of pragmatism on a fairly narrow spectrum. What we’ve seen in the last couple of years, particularly around Brexit, has been this outbreak of ideology, and for somebody like me that is quite scary, because that’s turning politics in Great Britain into very much like politics here in Northern Ireland to an extent.

What I want to do is I want to get back to that broad, pragmatic, consensus politics and, you know, the one reason why I was a Remainer right at the beginning was not because of any great love of the EU. I worked in Brussels – in many cases it’s a complete basket case. But it was our basket case, and it was a place we had real influence over.

I come from a unionist background, a trade unionist background. My father used to be number two in the Transport and General Workers Union of Northern Ireland. I remember the days of my father going over to have sandwiches and tea with Jim Callaghan in 10 Downing Street. I know what union power was like and the implications that it had. And, you know, much of that era – especially those ideas of social justice – has stayed very closely with me.

Northern Ireland needs to be managed in the context of looking forward. Looking forward, in a confident, vibrant United Kingdom – that’s what we need to do.

So, one of the things you might ask me about is my political ideology. We are a centrist party. We are probably left-of-centre, but never call me a Tory. Because I think the Conservatives, and particularly the present-day Conservatives, have managed to fundamentally undermine the very basis of our union. And that’s not just Northern Ireland – that’s also what’s happening in Scotland.

Given what you say about Remain, is an election result that prevents Boris Johnson from winning a majority and passing his deal – with a border in the Irish Sea – the better outcome for unionism in this election? Some sort of Labour-led administration that holds a second referendum and gives people the opportunity to Remain?

I mean, the best option is that we have a hung parliament and we have Ulster Unionists returned to the benches. And we will be able, at that stage, to negotiate whatever way it happens to be that we Remain.

Let’s not get stuck on the idea that we have to have a second referendum, because the first referendum was an absolute disaster. What’s the question? How long is it going to be? The earliest it’s been suggested they could do it is six to nine months. That’s going to pile on more and more uncertainty.

If we do come back with a hung parliament it’s then that we have to make the grown-up decision, because the people have spoken and they are unhappy with the current situation. So we have to either park it, in the medium term, until we decide what we’re going to do, or we look fundamentally at how we’re going to get to a position where we Remain.

Look, for unionism, for Northern Ireland, anything that is less than what we have at the moment is negative sum. The Fraser of Allander Institute did probably the few pieces of properly peer-reviewed research… on every outcome, from hard Brexit all the way to soft Brexit, everything was a reduction in GDP in Northern Ireland. They haven’t put Boris Johnson’s deal into it, but I think if they factored that in it’d be even worse than hard Brexit. For us, as people who believe in the union, Remain is the only way. And it’s also the only way that’s going to solve the Scottish question as well. This is no longer just a question about Northern Ireland - it’s a question about Scotland. A question of the very fabric of the union itself.

So would you say that, in a hung parliament, the primary objective of UUP MPs is to make sure we Remain?

We have to. Because that is the only way we’re going to get to a point of certainty. We looked at Boris Johnson’s deal when it came out. People keep talking about "all-island trade"; there isn’t an "all-island trade". It’s an all-islands trade... The thing that makes me absolutely furious is that nobody in London, nobody in Dublin, nobody in Brussels really cut through this problem when it came.

The problem is – and I saw this when I was chief executive of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce – in Dublin, when they thought of Britain, they didn’t look north, they looked east. In London, when they thought of Europe, they didn’t look west, they looked east. There is a myopia about Northern Ireland. There is a myopia about Ireland and Britain’s relationship – that is one of our biggest fundamental problems.

I think the other issue, as well, is that it has severely impacted relationships in Northern Ireland. Pre-Brexit, we were in a situation where there was a steady state. There was a belief in a settled statement going forward. Generally speaking, people were, if not content, were in general belief in the direction of travel we were going into – and what could possibly go wrong?

In April 2014, I was at Windsor Castle in my previous role to see the Queen and the Irish President. And British-Irish relationships had never been better. The Kenny-Cameron era - it was no longer about North Belfast, it was about the economy, stupid, to use Bill Clinton’s phrase. It was about that billion euros of trade every week that went back and forth across the Irish Sea. And you sensed that we’d turned a corner. There was a close and growing relationship. I remember walking out, and Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, there were some others hanging around, and we were just talking about the whole thing. And the question was, what could possibly go wrong?

Look at where we are now. The polarisation, the rise of tension, uncertainty, the very question of the union being raised – all these things are things prompted just by the Tory civil war.

Given you say that this is all the fault of the Tories, can you envisage any situation in which UUP MPs would support them in a hung parliament?

At the moment? I can’t really see it.

On some things, to do with issues of defence if we’re talking about a proper 2 per cent of GDP being spent on defence, not the Tories’ paperwork issues on defence, because obviously as somebody who spent a long time in the military I am now determined that our armed forces are properly equipped and ready to go for the future.

The other thing we are particularly passionate about is we need to get to zero net carbon by 2035 – if there’s government legislation or whatever party is pushing towards that, we need to do that because there is a climate emergency and a climate emergency is having a real impact right now. You don’t have to be someone sitting in Lincolnshire for the umpteenth time to realise that it seems a bit strange that 100-year floods are happening every year, to realise that there’s something to be changed. Those are the kind of things that on a case-by-case basis that we would look to support.

Another issue is, since according to both Boris and Jeremy, the age of austerity is over, one of the things we’d be very keen to do is to get our public services in Northern Ireland to where they should be. We’ve got significant problems in the healthcare system, we’ve got significant problems in the education system. A lot of those problems in the healthcare system are down to a near-decade of not making decisions that were supposed to be made. The mere fact that, in England at the moment, the waiting list for people waiting for an appointment for over a year – I think it’s 1,000 people. In Wales, it’s 4,000. In Northern Ireland, it’s 120,000. It’s extraordinary. The last time we had a UUP health minister, I think it was 2011, the waiting list was 16,000 and the wait was 18 weeks, not 52 weeks as it is right now.

So you can see that something’s fundamentally gone wrong. I was at a hustings recently and someone asked me a question from the audience, and said, "For the last decade, can you tell me what’s got better?" No. Because nothing has. What we need to be able to do is park that and get to the future where we need to get to.

Would you have any red lines in a hung parliament? Given what you’ve said about Brexit and climate, I wonder whether you have the same red line as the DUP – namely that you can’t do anything that would ever put Corbyn into Downing Street?

No, there’s absolutely no way, from what Corbyn’s done in the past, the way he talks, and all the rest of it – absolutely no way. I can’t overemphasise. It is not just that. I mean, principle. The fact that the near-institutionalised anti-Semitism, the views about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and how the current leader of the Labour Party has dealt with it. Some people who were dyed-in-the-wool Labour MPs have been deselected or left. To me, that’s not the Labour that I knew. And that’s not the Labour that I think most people in Britain understand.

There’s so much of this sort of ideological bent that doesn’t chime with where we would be. If we had two or three MPs would we be supporting Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister? Absolutely not. It is fundamentally wrong. If there was somebody else from Labour, and I think we all know there’s lots of candidates who, if they were leader of the Labour Party would be much easier to support.

Let’s be very, very clear. If there were other people who had been leader of the Labour Party, and I’m not going to embarrass Keir Starmer by saying that if he’d been the leader of the Labour Party, we wouldn’t be in the disaster that we’re in – I think everyone recognises that. Even people in the Labour movement. Many who have talked to me behind the scenes have been very clear that Jeremy’s stewardship has been disastrous.

How do you intend to prevent politics here becoming a three-party system - DUP, Alliance, Sinn Fein? Is that inevitable?

Why do you say that? We’re the third-largest party. We have 75 councillors. We are the third party. It isn’t a three-party system. The problem is that the St Andrews Agreement transformed the political situation in Northern Ireland, and we vehemently opposed St Andrews because what it did was it sectarianised politics.

The whole purpose of the Belfast Agreement was to make power-sharing work. St Andrews was about power-apportionment: a little bit for you, a little bit for me. That’s precisely what happened. And therefore both the DUP and Sinn Fein were always able to say, "Vote for me, or you get them’uns", so their votes went up, and they had more MLAs, they had more Ministers, and they divvied up them most for themselves. There was no close cooperation in government.

Well, read Sam McBride's Burned page by page. Compare that to how government works in Scotland, government works in Wales and how government should work in Whitehall. This is my experience. Having been dragged kicking and screaming to the Ministry of Defence numerous times, and having to sit through meetings in the Cabinet Office and all the rest of it I know how it’s supposed to work.

You come here and you realise it doesn’t work. You wonder what happened to all the checks, balances and controls. And then you realise that the checks, balances and controls are all there but they never use them because they decided they didn’t want to embarrass the "peace process", in inverted commas. The fact is that the place is run by unaccountable special advisers. You know what it’s like in Whitehall. It’s a sport playing with special advisers. You wouldn’t give them the light of day. Whereas here they were elevated into a position of power, so in effect all the Ministers did was sign the letters that were put in front of them.

We don’t have red lines because the problem with red lines is, on this basis, everybody’s very quick at building walls. What nobody’s really doing is realising where the consensus is to go forward. But the one thing we must have is fundamental reform of how Northern Ireland is run.

That means we need to change the culture, but not just the culture of the politicians. It needs to be about the culture of the machine itself. You know, I used to use the word "corruption". I thought, "No, maybe that’s too strong." And then I read Sam McBride’s book. There is institutionalised corruption.

That whole process needs to change, because that’s the only way we can really restore the faith of people in Northern Ireland in a devolved administration that’s going to work. Regardless of what you might think about the Assembly, regardless of what you think about the Scottish Parliament. Regardless of what you think about Westminster or Greater Manchester or the regional authorities. There is a sense that there is a degree of accountability and responsibility - there isn’t that here in Northern Ireland, and that’s what we need to restore.

What do you say to critics of yours who might say that, by standing aside for the DUP in North Belfast, you have, rather than striking a blow against that culture you have in a small way actually helped perpetuate it?

Because, quite frankly, I’d love to be in a situation where every election in Northern Ireland was about policy. I would love to be about the fact that in North Belfast it doesn’t matter who won the election, they’ll go to Westminster. I’m a unionist – Sinn Fein’s long-, short- and medium-term objective is to have a united Ireland. Again, as somebody who is passionate about Remaining for the very reason that we want to maintain a union, those seven Sinn Fein MPs could have had a fundamental effect on everything that was being done.

And then they turn around and say, "We are an anti-Brexit, pro-Remain party with lots of influence in Washington and London and Dublin and Brussels." But actually, you don’t, that’s just waffle. You don’t have a lot of influence in Dublin. You don’t have a lot of influence in Brussels. And it depends who’s walking through the door in Washington at any given time in the big scheme of things whether you’ve got any influence at all... They’re abstentionists. They’re abstentionists from Stormont, they’re abstentionists from Westminster. They could be in Westminster making a fundamental change.

So, when people in North Belfast turn around to me and say this, the truth to me is quite simple. We hear what you say, and we’re absolutely furious about the DUP putting a border down the Irish Sea. We get that. But the choice is between Dodds, who is a unionist, who at least can be held to account in Westminster, and somebody who’s never even going to go there and just going to pocket the expenses. Why are you giving them that choice?

So, on the two areas where that was true, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and North Belfast, we made the decision, having discussed that with lots of people, that we would stand aside in North Belfast. And, yeah, we would like to be in a situation where we’re running everywhere.

I would like to be in a position where every MP would sign off a line that says, “If I’m elected I’ll go to Westminster and represent my constituents.” North Belfast has real issues with social deprivation. It has real issues, particularly around mental health. It’s got real issues with rising levels of crime. If you look at it it’s somewhere that should be doing much better than it is. It’s got leafy suburbs, it’s got some of the most stunning scenery in Northern Ireland. It should be attracting lots of high-tech start-up businesses. It’s not doing any of that.

I’m not saying Dodds is particularly good. I don’t think he is at all. But the reality is the choice between the two – there isn’t a choice. And, as a unionist, I keep on saying this. And some people get confused about this. And they think because I support so-called liberal issues – which, actually, are the same issues everyone else supports in the United Kingdom – they look at me and go "Oh, that sounds a bit unionist". Of course it does, because I’m a unionist. I’m a unionist supporting the union. So, there you go.

What does success look like for you in this Westminster election?

Returning Ulster Unionist MPs to the green benches. That’s what we want. We want to have voices there that are representing unionism that are, quite frankly, not derided.

I spend an awful lot of time in the rest of our country and one of the things, you know the conversation is, "Oh, you’re a unionist, you’re one of them aren’t you?" And I say, "No, I’m one of the nice ones." Northern Ireland is changing fast. And one of the reasons why Northern Ireland has to change fast is we’re becoming out of tune with the rest of our country.

Actually, we’re out of tune with all these islands. We’re out of tune with modern Europe. We need to be moving rapidly on those issues as well. I find that when I joined our party as a position of conscience – the only reason I could join the Ulster Unionist Party was because of that position of conscience, was because I made it very clear right up front, "Listen, I support marriage equality, I support women’s rights, I’m a Remainer, rather than a Brexiteer" Look, we’re not going to change on that position of conscience. People in our party, for very deeply held reasons of religion and reasons of conscience, have very different and contradictory views. And that’s fine. I’m not going to change that, but as party leader my position is clear, because I need to make sure that Northern Ireland is a progressive, modern place.

We can only do that if we actually manage to get our act together in Northern Ireland and we actually decide over the next 50 years, rather than quibbling about whether we’re going to end up in a United Ireland or not, rather than doing that, we should be trying to make Northern Ireland work again, for everybody. If we can do that, we can get to where we need to be. Park any of these questions you want as long as you like: 20, 30, 40 years – for a generation.

Let’s just get Northern Ireland working. And at the end of that period, if we can’t get Northern Ireland to work, then that’s a different question.

Given what you said about the St Andrews Agreement earlier, how can you reclaim the initiative and do that in a political system that doesn’t incentivise that sort of serious thinking?

This is one of the things we’ve said about the peace process time and time again. We need to go back from St Andrews. And, you know, I jokingly said to a lot of people we need to go back to the future. But I’m not joking. We do need to go back to the Belfast Agreement. St Andrews and everything that’s come since has taken what was a very core set of principles and has fundamentally undermined them, and for all the wrong reasons. Because tinkering about the edges fundamentally undermines what people voted for in the referendum.

People voted in the referendum for the Belfast Agreement. It was a long-term expectation that power-sharing would work, and that the constitutional question would be parked. Let’s be very clear about it. David Trimble, when he was leader of this party, was fundamentally undermined because the IRA didn’t disarm. And the two governments never held the IRA to account to disarm. It was only after 9/11 that the pressure from the United States, new pressure, said that there’s no way you can be part of a political process and be a terrorist army – by which time David had been so dramatically undermined.

We did the heavy lifting for peace. We went from the largest party in Northern Ireland to the third party. Everybody’s been writing us off for the last 15, 20 years or whenever it happens to be but here we are. We’re still here, and we’ll still be here in another 10 or 15 years or whenever it happens to be.

Having done the heavy-lifting for peace, that was fundamentally undermined to try and bring the DUP and Sinn Fein in, and if the effort that had gone to bring Sinn Fein in had actually been put on pressure to disarm the IRA when it was, we probably wouldn’t be in the situation we are. But I don’t do counterfactuals and I don’t do what-ifs.

What’s your message to people who have voted for you in the past but have abandoned you for DUP or Alliance? What is the message that can satisfy both of those camps?

Many people left the Ulster Unionist Party to go to Alliance because they felt that we were being seen as DUP-lite. There is absolutely no way that we are DUP-lite. We have fundamentally different views on Brexit, we have fundamentally different views on administration and how the future of Northern Ireland is going to be, and the one thing that we’re very clear about is we believe strongly in the union. We do not want to be a place apart.

But we want to be the party for people who are unionists, people who are pro-union - quite frankly most of those people are quite happy with the status quo, because the status quo has been fundamentally undermined by the DUP and Sinn Fein. Alliance has no real messag on the union – it’s agnostic on the union.

How can you be agnostic on being a thing? The only reason Northern Ireland can do what it does, the only reason we’ve got the National Health Service, the BBC, a couple of really good universities – I wish they were world-class, but they’re not, we hope they will be in the future – the only way we can do that is if we’re part of a $3tn-a-year economy. We’re part of the United Kingdom. How anybody can’t see that the union is the key to that, I don’t get. That’s our message.

We want to make Northern Ireland a great place for everybody. The Ulster Unionist Party is about that, it’s about being pro-unionist, for those people who are pro-union, and actually those that are just happy with the status quo. But we need to be working together to make it happen.

Yours is a party of a rich heritage and tradition, and also a rich dissenting tradition. Who from the UUP’s history, in terms of your leadership, do you see yourself most in tune with?

Mike Nesbitt. Mike Nesbitt brought me into the party. He gave me that vision. He was the one who started doing the heavy lifting to point it in the right direction. But Robin Swann, who I took over from, Robin very quietly but very effectively had a strong, slightly left-of-centre message. Very strong on social justice. Two great people going forward in what they were trying to do.

But there are other people. If you look back at the history of the Ulster Unionist Party, as I always do when I wander around Queen’s University, I think of the generation of people like Edgar Graham [who was assassinated by the IRA in 1986], and what he could have done. That to me is one of the biggest challenges and concerns because there was an entire generation who could have made Northern Ireland a fantastic place. And that’s why violence and terrorism was just nihilistic. Because what it achieved – it killed thousands of people, it cost billions of pounds, and it’s created this cancer of sectarianism and all the rest of it which we haven’t managed to sort out.

I mean, if the choice was, as it now turns out, to be part of a liberal-institutionalist Western economy, looking for foreign direct investment from the United States type of country, or to join a Western and institutionalist looking for FDI from the United States type of country – what the heck is the difference? What was it all about? Why was the death of anybody needed? And the answer is, it wasn’t.

Violence in all its forms is fundamentally wrong. That is the legacy of those lost generations. The legacy of that is something that we all as politicians need to try and expunge, and we must, without forgetting the past, we desperately need to move on to the future.

Is there an argument that the fewer DUP MPs are returned, the better it is for the union?

Yeah, more Ulster Unionist MPs would be better. I’d quite like ten Ulster Unionist MPs, that would be excellent. Good, right. I think the New Statesman and I can agree on that one.

If you look back at 2016, a system that was slowly moving towards a more conventional system of opposition and government, with the UUP making up the former. Would you say that Brexit could be terminal in derailing that slow but consistent progress?

I have serious concerns about whether we’ll ever be able to get Stormont back up and running again. For the reasons I’ve outlined before. The whole system – there’s no accountability or responsibility within it, and there was no opportunity cost for anybody. Basically, if somebody made a bad decision somebody would bail them out. Look at the RHI scandal.

The subtext of Sam McBride’s book was quite simple: just providing the DUP and Sinn Fein thought that someone else was paying the bill they were more than happy. It’s only when the Treasury pointed out to them the fact that they couldn’t even get their most simple homework right – that’s when the thought came, the panic. But the panic wasn’t, "Oh, let’s shut it down". The panic was, "Let’s make sure everybody that we know can get their oar in first, and then shut it down!"

What sort of mentality thinks that way? The mentality is in many respects Ulster nationalism. I can’t put up with that, because we have to be about making the union a better place for everyone. Broad-based unionism needs to be about making the union as a whole work better for everybody.

The more that the constituent parts are seen as all part-identical to the greater good, the better it is for everybody.

You mentioned the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021. With Brexit and the state of party politics here, are you at all confident that devolution will be back in time?

Nope. I’m not confident about devolution coming back, full stop. I’m not an optimist, I’m not a pessimist, I’m a realist.

Having sat for the last three years through what desultorily called "intensive talks" where there was nothing intensive about them, and it all seemed quite Orwellian in that one party good, four parties bad in some cases. Or two parties good, three parties bad. Every sensible idea that the smaller parties came up with was either completely discounted, or changed or ignored.

I have a party executive to convince that if we were going to go back into government. Right now, if you asked me the question? I’m not sure I can answer that. And unless something’s fundamentally going to change, I’m not sure where we’re going to get to.  

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.