Peace process took serious toll on UUP

Party cut to shadow of former self but some claim it is too early to write its obituary

Mike Nesbitt: among the former Ulster Unionist Party leaders who joined 400 delegates at the party’s annual conference in the Armagh City Hotel on Saturday.  Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Mike Nesbitt: among the former Ulster Unionist Party leaders who joined 400 delegates at the party’s annual conference in the Armagh City Hotel on Saturday. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Three former Ulster Unionist Party leaders – Mike Nesbitt, Tom Elliott and Reg Empey – joined 400 delegates at the party’s annual conference in the Armagh City Hotel on Saturday.

The three are proof of the price paid by the UUP for the political sacrifices made to establish and cement the peace process from 1995 to 2005 when David Trimble was in charge.

Each of the three tried. Each of them would surely acknowledge they failed. Now 46-year-old North Antrim Assembly member Robin Swann faces the challenge, or, more accurately, is the one who holds the poisoned chalice.

In the first Assembly elections after the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the UUP won 28 seats, eight ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party. Five years later, it dropped a seat to 27. For the first time, the DUP had more, holding 30 seats.

By 2007, the UUP was down to 18 seats; it lost two more in 2011. Rather against the odds, it held on to those 16 seats in last year’s Assembly election, under Mike Nesbitt.

This March, however, it slumped to 10, with the Assembly reduced in size from 108 to 90 seats, prompting Nesbitt’s resignation. This June, it got worse, when it lost its two House of Commons seats.

Now, Swann holds the fortunes of the party of Carson and Craig, of “Big House” unionism, in his hands, one that has been reduced to a shadow of its former strength and influence.

Daunting task

It is a daunting task for Swann, a mild-mannered man. On Saturday, he went on the attack against the DUP, but rather obliquely so when he implied links between some DUP politicians and the UDA.

Equally obliquely – perhaps referring to the Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco – he suggested corruption among elements of the DUP. Perhaps a more direct assault would have worked better.

However, he was emphatic in making it clear that the DUP will be granted no cover if it reaches some accommodation with Sinn Féin on an Irish language Act – the main issue blocking the current talks.

Though he spoke of the UUP becoming “radical moderates”, it is clear he does not yet have a strategy that might revitalise the UUP. The road ahead is not easy, requiring “days, weeks, months, years” of hard work.

In his speech, he paid tribute to the eight who lost their seats this year. It made for a sad litany – Tom Elliott, Danny Kinahan, Danny Kennedy, Jo-Anne Dobson, Sandra Overend, Harold McKee, Jenny Palmer and Philip Smith.

Danny Kennedy has been involved in Ulster unionist politics for 32 years, holding an Assembly seat from 1998 until last March. Now, he is signing on at the JobCentre in Newry.

“It is difficult as a redundant politician to get alternative work, and I am finding that out,” Kennedy told The Irish Times. “It is not about money, it is about employment.”

Disenchanted voters

However, he is not sure he would run for the Assembly again. With constituencies now five-seaters he knows it would be hard to regain the Ulster Unionist seat in Newry and Armagh.

Nevertheless, he is keeping faith with the UUP, though, rather like his new leader, he does not have a rescue plan, bar a conviction that voters will become disenchanted sometime with the DUP.

But he did make the point, and it was a fair one, that 400 delegates had turned out, including a reasonable smattering of Young Unionists. If the party is down, it is not out.

With 10 MLAs, the UUP it is entitled to one minister in the next Northern Executive should the DUP and Sinn Féin somehow strike a deal. That is not a lot of muscle but the right person might be able to punch above his or her weight.

These are tough times, but Kennedy believes there is potential for regrowth “There is a hunger within the party,” he said. “I think those who write our political obituary are premature.”

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