Fostering goodwill with another unionist defection

4 Nov 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 4 Nov 2016

It's been a great week for a new DUP recruit
It's been a great week for a new DUP recruit

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Party-hopping councillor Aaron Callan has stepped on a rake and smacked himself in the face – but it won’t really matter.

Unionism has a substantial history of political defections.

They come, they go; they succeed, they fail – but they almost always start off with some niggle.

New DUP man Aaron Callan might want to keep that in mind as he looks back on an embarrassing first week finding his feet in fresh surroundings.

The Limavady councillor announced his resignation from the Ulster Unionists last Wednesday and, at the same time, was brought into the Democratic Unionist fold.

Almost immediately, a number of impolite things he had said about his new party, its modus operandi, and specific members themselves – including the Member of Parliament in his own constituency – came to light on social media and in the press.

Despite being the first of three UUP-to-DUP defections in a few days, the others being Belfast councillor Graham Craig and North Antrim party secretary Andrew Wright, calling Gregory Campbell “a complete robot” has ensured the East Londonderry local representative is the one with his pictures in the newspapers.

Who’s who, what’s what

Modern unionism has evolved with the times through the birth, death and metamorphosis of various parties. Unionists, Official Unionists, Ulster Unionists; Protestant Unionists, Democratic Unionists; Vanguard; Progressive Unionists; Traditional Unionists; NI21 - and so on.

Individual defections are a basic part of that process. The outcomes for the individuals who throw themselves around can be mixed.

The Troubles was a time of turmoil generally, and political unionism was no different. But even the past two decades has seen plenty of party hopping.

It is perhaps the great irony of the Good Friday Agreement that the party that largely defined unionist opposition to the deal, the DUP, has benefitted more than any other political organisation from its implementation.

Say one thing, do another

The Ulster Unionists played a huge role in making the GFA happen and suffered greatly as a consequence. Their main competitors rose to prominence thanks to words of opposition but, ultimately, actions that embraced never-never-never sticking points such as power sharing – with Martin McGuinness, of all people.

Of course, the UUP was riven with doubt about the agreement, and that doubt did not go away in the years after 1998 when Stormont spluttered, stumbled and fell, rose again and fell again, and struggled to generate momentum.

Maybe the biggest defection in the post-GFA world came in 2004 when Jeffrey Donaldson, then and now the Lagan Valley MP, and others made the same jump as Mr Callan.

This collection of editorials from the time makes for some interesting reading, especially with the benefit of hindsight. The DUP did indeed consolidate itself as the biggest unionist party; it did so by sharing power.

Most interesting of all, for Mr Callan anyway, are those mentions of Mr Donaldson’s two “colleagues” and “key supporters”. One was Norah Beare, a sitting MLA (albeit Stormont didn’t do much sitting back then) who was subsequently not selected for re-election; the other is now First Minister.

Callan out your ill-advised comments

But what about Mr Callan? Reading through his old critiques about his new party it is hard not to deduce he has made this leap due to personal ambition.

He criticises the UUP leadership in his departing statement and blames them for his decision to move. Blaming leadership is a classic political criticism in these circumstances; it alienates the minimum number of people and comes across as a way to court, rather than irritate, the people who voted for you before.

Of course, maybe he is just being honest – but it doesn’t look that way given his dim view of the DUP, revealed when someone inevitably took the (short) time required to sift through some of his social media efforts. The results were not pretty.

He said the DUP is “unabashed at rewriting history” and claim credit for jobs coming to NI but accept no blame when they leave.

Back in the Democratic Unionist glory days that was BBC Spotlight’s programmes about the Housing Executive, Stephen Brimstone, Nelson McCausland and all that stuff (including the UUP’s Jenny Palmer MLA, then of the DUP) he leapt on Mr Brimstone’s famous “party comes first” mantra and said this shows “the real mentality” of his new party – and two days later he suggested Mr McCausland “needs to step down”.

And, of course, just a year before he flipped he compared the DUP leadership to that of North Korea while previously he had a dig at the media over their lack of coverage for a councillor moving from the DUP to the UUP.

And then there is Gregory Campbell, robot.

So what?

Mr Callan might not like the UUP much but he does not think much of the DUP either. So there are likely other reasons why he is moving from the smaller party to the bigger one, which has reinforced its electoral success.

Of course, he is not the only person resorting to cheap barbs which may or may not be sincere. Confirming his departure, the UUP said: “We have built our success in recent years on teamwork. On that basis Councillor Callan is unlikely to be missed.”

The thing is, all these uncomplimentary comments will be forgotten by the people at who they were aimed, and right soon. If nothing else, robots tend to get on with things.

The new DUP councillor is still in his 20s and might have grand designs for his future. Most political careers are Norah Beare rather than Arlene Foster – but, whatever happens to Mr Callan, it won’t be because of things he has already said and done.

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