After discussing Welsh politics in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and a phone call to the Scottish Parliament to talk about the Scottish Tories with a former party leader, I was on my way to Westminster to mull over the political situation in Northern Ireland with the recently elected Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MP Danny Kinahan.
Over a cup of tea in Portcullis House we began by talking about the recent general election results. For Mr Kinahan, and I presume the UUP more generally, the outcome was nothing short of “fantastic”. He went on to describe the results as “a victory for the Ulster Unionists in my case and a victory for Unionism in Tom’s case”, referring to the other UUP victory of the night in which former party leader Tom Elliott defeated a three-term Sinn Fein incumbent by winning in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Mr Kinahan also stated that the outcome “showed us we are possibly on our way back”, with the two wins on election night ending the five-year spell without any UUP representation in the House of Commons. However, the newly elected MP was quick to point out that the party had “got to make sure we work on it”, therefore viewing the result as a step in the right direction but just that, with plenty more work to be done.
Sticking with the discussion of what the future holds for the UUP as a party, Mr Kinahan touched on both efforts to establish cross-community support and engage with the younger generation of Northern Ireland’s electorate. On efforts to reach across sectarian lines, the newly elected MP conceded that the party “can do a huge amount more”. He continued, “what we’ve got to try and break in Northern Ireland, is in each constituency, people just voting for their traditional party and that is the hardest thing”. However, despite the conscious effort to engage with all parts of the electorate, Mr Kinahan acknowledged, “the labels will always be hard to change”. Concerning the youth vote, Mr Kinahan affirmed his position that “you’ve got to work on those people below 35 years old, who aren’t embedded in ‘The Troubles'”. For these people, he argued, “they just want a way forward which is economy, housing, schools, and that’s where we’ve got to lead”.
In addition to reaching out to, perhaps, previously neglected sectors of the electorate, Mr Kinahan affirmed his support for the UUP firmly establishing itself in the middle ground of Northern Irish politics. Describing the party as presently “centre” but “a mixture of a whole group of people”, the MP went on to contend that this attempt to occupy the centre-ground could yield only positive results for the party. He posited, the recent election result “was a move forward because my feeling is that a whole lot of people want to see the middle ground occupied properly by Unionism and it isn’t just Protestant Unionism but people who believe in the Union for everybody”.
To conclude, we looked ahead to the Northern Irish Assembly elections set for May 5th. For Mr Kinahan, the “best result would be us getting more seats than the DUP and therefore being the strongest Unionist party. And it’s possible, we’re going to be running enough people and enough able people. So it is possible and I hope the people will see through the DUP”. However, he stated, “being realistic, people don’t change in Northern Ireland too easily so I think it’ll be a bit closer”. Nevertheless, given the upward trend in support for the UUP following the recent general election, Mr Kinahan articulated his view that “I certainly see a turn and it’s up to us to get that across to people”.
I therefore left parliament with an extremely positive outlook for Northern Ireland. Although one must be realistic in the scale of their gains, the fact that the UUP is witnessing an increase in electoral support once again is something to be celebrated by Conservatives across the entire United Kingdom. Not only am I assured in meeting with Mr Kinahan that he, and the wider party, will stand resolute in defence of the Union, but also their shift to the centre reflects the course of a modern UUP. One can only hope that this leads to increased representation for the UUP in Stormont, which could only yield positive results – both for the party in Northern Ireland and its representation in Westminster.