Leader signals UUP may take opposition role in Assembly


ANALYSIS:MIKE NESBITT signalled at his annual party conference in the Titanic Belfast building on Saturday that the Ulster Unionist Party may be prepared to become the official Opposition in the Assembly after the next election.

Nesbitt didn’t specifically say that the UUP would favour adopting that Assembly role, but barring some monumental collapse, the DUP is virtually certain to remain the dominant unionist power after that election. It would take a crash of Fianna Fáil proportions for the UUP to regain the frontline position.

In a speech on Friday Peter Robinson made reference to the need for unionist unity, but so far Nesbitt has turned his face against that idea. Therefore the notion of a formal Opposition may begin to take root. Nesbitt made clear he would only countenance such a plan if formal structures were in place to support an Opposition.

It’s a big issue because going into Opposition would deprive the party of its single ministry. It could also offer advantage to the Alliance Party. Nesbitt must weigh up whether it would be worth taking such a risk: that battling against DUP-Sinn Féin just might be the ingredient to help restore party fortunes.

Nesbitt spoke well at the weekend; however, there was nothing hugely surprising in what he had to say. But to be fair to Nesbitt he has made clear over recent months that there is “no quick fix” to the UUP’s ailments.

In his short time in the job he has come in for criticism for failing to establish clear policies for the party. On Saturday, though, the UUP presented five draft policy papers on the economy, health, education, housing and culture, while Nesbitt defined the UUP as an all-embracing progressive, pluralist, pro-union party that seeks and will take support from whatever quarter, regardless of colour or creed.

He told the 300 or so delegates in the conference room of the Titanic Belfast building that they should “relax” about the union, which he feels is secure for the foreseeable future, and instead focus on the real problems, the economic crisis, sectarianism, deprivation and poverty.

He also tried to reach out to that most elusive group, the Protestants who just won’t vote; a bloc viewed as sympathetic to the UUP’s views and aspirations.

What he didn’t do was mark out for unionist voters clear differences between the UUP and the DUP. With both parties occupying the centre ground, maybe Opposition is the only way to define that difference.