UUP conference: ‘I think we will make serious gains in the Assembly elections’

Four members explain why they are optimistic about the party’s future

 

 

Jenny Palmer

Last month Jenny Palmer (55) and her husband, John, both of them Lisburn councillors, quit the DUP to join the UUP.

“It was really like coming home,” she says, which in a real sense it was: her first political home was the UUP but when Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson moved to the DUP in 2003, the Palmers moved with him.

Now, following a long-running row over her claims of bullying and that she had been ordered by a special DUP adviser to change the way she intended to vote at a Housing Executive board meeting, she is back in the UUP’s embrace.

“I lost faith with the DUP. It’s been more a battle a day between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and it’s certainly been a battle a day within the party itself. I was tired.

“I think people are fed up to the teeth with the claim and counterclaim between Sinn Féin and the DUP. I think Mike Nesbitt by pulling his Minister out of the [Northern] Executive was his way of saying, ‘We can’t go forward any longer with the nonsense that is being played out at the Assembly’.”

Andy Allen

Andy Allen (26) who is married with two children aged six and three, was co-opted to replace Michael Copeland as UUP Assembly member for East Belfast. He is visually impaired and wheelchair-bound, having lost both his legs in a Taliban bomb explosion while serving as a ranger in the Royal Irish Regiment in Afghanistan in 2008.

Despite his injuries, he says he loved his six years in the British army. “I would do it all over again tomorrow. I have no regrets. They were some of the best days of my life. I don’t let being in a wheelchair define who I am,” he says.

He is working to improve access at Parliament Buildings in Stormont and has no concerns about campaigning on the streets of east Belfast looking for votes in the next Assembly elections.

Allen says he chose to join the UUP, as opposed to any other unionist party, because he believes its fortunes are reviving and because it has “always strived to do what is right for Northern Ireland”.

It is also important to him that when it comes to “controversial issues such as same-sex marriage or abortion, the party gives members a vote of conscience”.

“The [electoral] statistics speak for themselves. The party is rejuvenated. We are attracting more members and we are attracting members back,” he says.

Carl McClean

Carl McClean (36), a native of Bangor, Co Down, was elected to the new Ards and North Down supercouncil last year.

He was also selected to run in North Down in this year’s Westminster general election but stood aside to give Independent unionist MP Lady (Sylvia) Hermon a free run.

He has not been selected yet but is virtually certain to stand in North Down in next May’s Assembly elections.

“I think we are on the up but we have a lot further to go. It is a really exciting time to be involved with this party. I think we are going to make serious gains in the Assembly elections,” he says with great confidence, even predicting that, not in this election, but in the future the UUP once again will be the largest party in Northern Ireland.

Asked the difference between the DUP and the UUP, he says: “Every time I see a DUP politician who I feel is a nice guy, he’s reasonable, he’s respectable, nine times out of ten, I get the message back he used to be an Ulster Unionist.

“We are in politics for the sake of it; we don’t see power as an end in itself. I see the DUP as playing on fear.”

McClean joined the UUP in 2012 shortly after Nesbitt was elected leader. He believes the UUP “resurgence” is rattling the DUP.

“You can tell the DUP are scared. They don’t want an election. For us, it can’t come soon enough.”

Lindsay Millar

 

Lindsay Millar (24), from Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, was elected to the new Mid and East Antrim Borough supercouncil last year. A politics graduate, she wrote her dissertation on former UUP leader and first minister David Trimble.

She joined the UUP four years ago when the party was divided and seemingly in serious decline.

Asked why she didn’t opt for Alliance or the DUP, Millar says: “I am a unionist. I don’t see the Alliance party as a unionist party and I see the DUP as an Ulster nationalist party. I think the UUP is a true unionist party.

“I am a very firm supporter of same-sex marriage, which the DUP is not. I also favour reform of the abortion Act. Within our party we have freedom of conscience whereas the DUP has a very strict line on those social matters.”

She supported Nesbitt when he was elected leader in March 2012.

She says she “would like powersharing to work” but Nesbitt was “absolutely right” to withdraw his single Minister, Danny Kennedy, from the Northern Executive following the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan. She is certain this move chimed with most unionists.

“Mike has stabilised the party and created a very united party.”

Interviews by Gerry Moriarty