This week Ulster Unionists will be asked to support a motion noting the party's role in creating a "new, peaceful dispensation" within the Union, albeit at "significant electoral cost to itself". A call will be made for the UUP to become a modern political party in order to regain maximum electoral support. Procedures are to be ratified to facilitate a review of all aspects of the party because radical change is essential if the party is to regain lost support and survive and prosper.
More than 10 years ago David Trimble spoke about the need for structural change but this was interpreted by some as suggesting a break with the historic Orange link. In response some leading Orangemen seemed determined to resist such change. Since then the Orange Order has broken the link itself and in any case the party was taken up with internal dissension and other matters. However, poor electoral performance has brought the reform issue back on to the agenda with a vengeance.
The political context has, however, changed and the DUP seems determined to promote everything it once opposed by reaching out the hand of friendship to the Republic and sharing power with former supposed archenemies in Sinn Féin. It looks as if Ian Paisley's advisers have been keen observers of political developments and have noted progress made by the Ulster Unionists since the ceasefire of 1994. Perhaps more importantly, they also noted the strides made by Sinn Féin towards a more exclusively democratic approach. This is why one prominent DUP assembly member agreed that real possibilities existed for substantial progress.
Peter Robinson also said that even if the UUP had a good deal the party wouldn't know how to sell it, which I interpreted as indicating that the DUP recognised the new possibilities and was biding its time, awaiting a suitable opportunity to jump on board the peace train. The party would then dispense with the driver and guide the train triumphantly out of the station. Conditions for this are now about right and the DUP is eager for the transition to full-scale support for change and with a minimum need for figleaves.
Meanwhile, the UUP is still reeling and at present incapable of making a major dent in DUP progress. The prospect of Ian Paisley sitting down with Sinn Féin is no longer seen as a problem and neither is acknowledging his Irish roots. Cross-border bodies are no longer of major concern and the prospect of sharing power here and cementing good relationships with the south are to be eagerly grasped – just as Paisley grasped the hand of Bertie Ahern.
Given this, it will not be easy for Reg Empey to achieve a successful overhaul of thinking and outlook on top of structural change. The old issues are fast becoming redundant. The south is no longer seen by the DUP as a priest-ridden, Rome-dominated society but rather as modern, progressive, outward-looking society no longer dominated by old constitutional matters. It is hard to see where the new UUP can fit in. The most natural and hopeful position would be to move towards the centre and push the agenda for change but the old reactionary DUP rivals are no longer with us. The old rhetoric now exists only in Ian Paisley's head to be accessed and manipulated should a temporary brake become necessary.
If Reg Empey's party was to move to the right to out-DUP the old DUP it could be annihilated by the new progressive DUP. But if the UUP moves to the left it could appear a pale shadow of the new DUP. The UUP approach should therefore be a principled one that heralds a new vision for healthy relationships between the various parts of these islands and the Irish Republic as well as among our divided people, as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. The party must become more welcoming not only to Catholics but to ethnic minorities and all others who wish to promote healthy, open and constructive relationships throughout these islands and beyond.
There are still too many tiny branch meetings insisting on singing God Save the Queen out of tune and in some cases starting meetings with Christian prayers. This in a modern political party is hardly a welcoming environment for all who might support the Union and could be found offensive by some potential supporters. Although tackling such issues might raise hackles, risk-taking is essential if real progress is to take place.