While in America we can see the usual cycle as political parties decline, go into opposition and then renew themselves in opposition before regaining power--a cycle that is played out throughout the West and the wider democratic world, in Northern Ireland a different process is at work. This is illustrated by the present crisis that the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) finds itself in as it loses a former contender for the office of party leader, Ken Maginnis, who is also the leader of its largest constituency in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Maginnis represented the UUP at Westminster for 18 years until he retired in 2003 to remain merely a councillor.
I have a particular interest in Maginnis because he represents unionism's sole example of the native-fighter politician i.e. the Indian fighter in America's 19th century, the African fighter in the volksraade of the Boer Republics in the late 19th century in South Africa, and the numerous generals in the Israeli Knesset since 1948. Maginnis was only a major in the Ulster Defence Regiment, the large home defense regiment of citizen soldiers who were on the frontlines of The Troubles and were the most vulnerable of the British security forces because they could targeted while off duty.
Maginnis became his party's spokesman and specialist on security affairs because of his experience as an officer during the 1970s. He combined a hawkish approach to security matters with an ability to get along with his moderate nationalist counterparts in the SDLP, and a willingness to combat Sinn Fein Republicans on television or in person after 1994. Maginnis in his level of military responsibility was more akin to the former American officers from WWII who went into politics like John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Bob Dole, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush than like the Israeli generals like Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, et al. Instead of having two complete consecutive careers in politics he had a short military career that overlapped with his political career.
The occasion for his resignation came over the issue of homosexual marriage. For his generation of unionists as for nationalists homosexuality is rejected by Christian doctrine and therefore not to be legally sanctioned. But for many younger unionists this is antiquated. David Trimble's personal political advisor was a young man named Steven King, who is gay. King married his partner in a ceremony in Canada in 2005. Maginnis must have known King quite well as he was a leading supporter of David Trimble during the peace process and afterwards from 1996 to 2002. The party is now torn between those more liberal unionists who support rights for homosexuals and are more like their counterparts in the Conservative Party on the mainland or like Alliance, and the traditionalists. Maginnis's resignation could cause resignations from his constituency, the largest in the province, as his followers now depart for the DUP. With the DUP now implementing Ulster Unionist policies there is little to keep them from joining. Maginnis will probably not do this as he is too old and inclined to simply retire from politics. Mid-Ulster MLA Sandra Overend claims that it was violation of party discipline rather than his views on homosexuality that led to the row with Mike Nesbitt.
For UUP leader Mike Nesbitt it is an unhappy reminder of the divisions that plague his party. These divisions are much easier to notice in a small tent than in a big tent, to use a metaphor from American politics. If Nesbitt tries too hard to compete with the DUP he will lose members on his party's liberal wing to Alliance. If he tries too hard to compete with Alliance he will lose members to the DUP. And if he takes no risks he will preside over a party that is just a collection of nostalgists. Political commentator Liam Clarke notes that Maginnis was the last of the five 1995 candidates for party leadership still active in the party. He sees his departure as a bad omen for the future of the UUP.
Northern Ireland has a rather unique multipolar structure: the sectarian religio-political divide splits politics into twin two-party systems with the non-sectarian Alliance Party in the middle. Most individuals have only two logical parties to choose between: the UUP and DUP for conservative unionists, the UUP and Alliance for liberal unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein for conservative nationalists, and the SDLP and Alliance for liberal nationalists. Because Alliance is registered as an "other" party in the sectarian consociational structure of the Assembly, if either the UUP or the SDLP goes under this will leave one of the ruling duo of Sinn Fein/DUP with no competition within its division in the Assembly. Certain measures require the majority of both communities to support a bill in the Assembly. So Alliance functions under the present system more as a think tank with Assembly representatives than as a real party. It provides policies for the other parties. But it cannot implement these policies except by selling them to the other parties.