Doug Beattie is an attractive party leader for the liberal tendency. For years he held back from taking the leadership post he seemed well cut out for, deferring to Steve Aiken and Robin Swann before him. While they took responsibility for running the party, Beattie was the main front person in the media, a regular on the morning Nolan show on Radio Ulster.

It was that show that finished Aiken, his immediate predecessor, after he got bogged down in an interview. Usually a politician in difficulty can waffle and prevaricate and ultimately the time allotted for the interview runs out and the next item on the running order takes over. Nolan plays it differently and when he has an interviewee in trouble he worries away at the poor sap like a hungry dog. The issue that Aiken floundered on is almost forgotten. It was the question of whether the party demanded the resignation of the Chief Constable over the management of the Bobby Storey funeral, following on Arlene Foster’s call for him to go. Already it sounds like a history lesson.

Beattie had, in the previous years, honed his own media skills on the same programme but found himself in difficulty there too. He was asked if he would share power with Sinn Féin after the next assembly election, scheduled for May ‘22 and he refused to answer. This sounded like a failure to commit to the basics of the Good Friday Agreement. No, he insisted, no party leader would commit to any formation before an election. The time to decide was after. But that’s how it works in ordinary multi party systems like the Dail. Northern Ireland is different. The lead nationalist party and the lead unionist party have to share power or the whole thing collapses. Not committing to that sounds like a willingness to let the assembly fall.

So what’s he up to? He’s contemplating going into Opposition: ‘Has anyone gone to the Alliance party and asked them’, he says, ‘If you get enough votes to go into the Executive come the next election would you go into the Executive or would you go into Opposition? Ask them. They won’t answer you because they won’t lay their cards out now. Go to the SDLP and ask if they will go into the executive or into opposition. They won’t answer you. … We’ve all been out. … At the collapse in 2016 the Alliance were not in government. We were not in government.’

2022 – a different place

But the situation is potentially very different from 2016. The Ulster Unionist party was not indispensable in 2016. It was not the lead Unionist party and this time it just might be. To suggest that they might, in that circumstance, not stick with the power sharing formula opens them to the charge of sectarianism. That was the comeback from Sinn Féin: ‘The days of nationalists need not apply are over. We’re not going to the back of the bus any more.’ Beattie says, ‘People do that with unionist parties. I say to people, you can look at me and measure a man and they can trust me and I will always do the right thing. But no political party now will say they are playing for second best.’

But he could have said that he was committed to working the institutions of the agreement. He says it now: ‘Well we are, but that does mean that we have to be in government. Bear in mind that under the New Decade New Agreement we will have an opposition. I may feel that in opposition is the best place to be. Opposition creates good government.’

But surely that is a position only the Unionist runner up would take and he’s not saying that he anticipates coming second to the DUP or the Alliance Party, which would make things even more complicated. If Alliance overtakes both Unionists parties, which it might, the whole template would surely become unworkable. They would refuse to designate as Unionist to take the First or Deputy First Minister’s post and they would have a legitimate complaint of the system discriminating against them if they could not have it without designating.

Doug Beattie thinks we are on course for a full overhaul of the system anyway and predicts ‘a complete MOT’ by 2025. Until then there is the prospect of a minority Executive at Stormont with more parties in opposition than taking part: ‘It would be up to the main elected parties to form a coalition. We have always said that we should create the main headings of a programme for government before an Executive is formed.’ He says there might even be a power sharing opposition. The Programme for Government seems likely to be the ‘big decider’ for him.

The question now for the electorate is whether they see that as creative new thinking or unwarranted messing about. The people he is attracting to the party probably expect him to be a disrupter of the old sectarian simplicities without actually going so far as to deny them stable governance. Doug Beattie has appeal across a range of attitudes. He was never an Orangeman. He says he didn’t know he was a Protestant until he was ten years old. His religious sentiments were framed under fire in Afghanistan. ‘I have a belief. I was sleeping in a half dug grave in Garmsir in Afghanistan. A Muslim graveyard. And it was brutal. Some of the things that I was seeing and doing I never expected to see or do in my lifetime, and I was coming to my forties and I reached out to God within that trench, lying there alone and saying ‘Please help me stay alive. Please help me keep my soldiers alive. Please help us get out of here.’ And I felt a real sense of something coming in and that spiritual feeling. And I hold that very dear and very close to me and very private to me. I don’t need to express that in a church.’

This is experience that might endear him to some of the evangelicals in Unionism, at least those who can stomach his liberal thinking on homosexuality. He has deep respect for the army and that is one of the traditional qualifications of a unionist: ‘I joined the military at 16 and my whole life has been pretty much within the military which extends from guarding Rudolf Hess in Spandau prison to guarding the cruise missiles in Greenham Common. I was at the invasion of Iraq and was standing beside Colonel Tim Collins when he gave the eve of battle speech. I was sent to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2008 and then finally in 2010 –11. Three tours.’

And he has killed and can perhaps look other killers in Stormont straight in the eye, knowing what that does to oneself. He gutted a man with a bayonet. ‘I am not proud of it but he was trying to kill me and that is what I had to do. So that whole brutality of conflict affects you and it is hard to explain what it is like because when you are in Afghanistan in the middle of that environment, doing what you are doing, it is impossible to think of yourself walking through Tesco and when you are walking through Tesco’s it is really impossible to think of yourself in Afghanistan doing that very thing. So you have to try and understand that feeling but you lose it when you leave the environment. It was pretty brutal.’ In Helmand he lost friends. Some were killed while following his orders.

The future of the Union

He sees Unionism as having to win support from people who may call themselves nationalist but can be content within the Union. He has returned to war zones and met young people who are appalled by their recent history and want to be secure against recurrence: ‘I served in Bosnia. Bosnia was a particularly horrific conflict. I was there when the Dayton agreement was signed in 1995 but I was back in Sarajevo in 2004 and I was speaking to kids in 2004. And I was saying, the effects of that conflict on you must have been pretty horrific and they literally went, we don’t want to know. We want to know what the future holds. And when I look at this demographic in Northern Ireland, many of those kids are exactly the same. They don’t want to look back to us and to our generation. They think, well you failed.’

While he wants the Union to endure and has faith that it will, he accepts that if there is a united Ireland he will stay and participate as a democrat. ‘But standing with somebody from Dublin or Galway, as I have done, in the deserts of Afghanistan I felt as Irish as they did. Actually as a people, when taken away from that geographical space we actually have an awful lot in common. … This is home. Everything changes. Society moves on. I will get old. I will die. My kids will get old. They will die. I want to remain part of the United Kingdom. I believe I will be part of the United Kingdom for the whole of my life. I believe that my kids will be in the United Kingdom for the whole of their lives. But if we were ever to have a united Ireland, be that a united Ireland as part of the UK or a united Ireland completely separate within the EU, it is still my home, the people are still my people, either side of the border.’

He knows that the balance of the decision in a border poll will be with the middle ground and that is the political space he is trying to claim, competing inevitably for it with the Alliance party. Paradoxically he sees some possible good coming from the rise of Sinn Féin in the Republic. He says: ‘There is a fundamental change coming about. Sinn Féin is going to be the government in the Irish republic. That’s going to end the united Ireland debate for a five year period because even some of the strongest nationalists who want a united Ireland will not ever support Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin in government in the Irish Republic is one of our strongest assets. If things are going the way they are going and Sinn Féin end up in government in the Irish republic I am telling you now in Northern Ireland it will have ended the debate on a united Ireland.’