Party in dire need of vision and plan

 

ANALYSIS:Ulster Unionists desperately require a realisable path of renewal, and some Fine Gael-style luck, if they are to arrest the decline in their party

PLENTY OF grey hair and shiny pates and quite a number of empty chairs were in evidence at the annual conference of the Ulster Unionist Party in the Armagh City Hotel on Saturday.

Evidence too of a party treading water, trying to stay afloat until some as-yet-unseen rescue vessel comes along. At the moment, the UUP is a party not waving, but drowning.

The May Assembly elections are past and the Westminster elections of 2010 are well out of the way. These are elections that are now best forgotten, as the UUP dropped from 18 to 16 Assembly seats, thus also dropping from two to just one ministry – the same as the SDLP – while the Westminster poll was even worse, with the UUP for the first time in its history failing to elect a single member to the House of Commons.

Still, it could be worse. At least, as leader Tom Elliott noted in his keynote address to the 350 or so delegates, for once in Northern Ireland, no elections are imminent. There is a period of grace to try to rebuild and revitalise.

The leaderships of the UUP and the SDLP, which holds its annual conference and elects a new leader the weekend after next, have a few years to find a plan and a vision that could help them mount some form of effective challenge to the DUP and Sinn Féin – not to surpass either party, of course, merely to stay in touch.

Elliott reflected a little on past glories in his speech.

“Irrespective of the attempts by other political parties to rewrite history, the fact remains that there would not now be an Assembly and a recognisable peace process if it were not for the UUP,” he said.

And who would quibble with him? John Hume and David Trimble took the strain without the ultimate party political gain, but as that old tormentor of the UUP Ian Paisley might say, looking back to old achievements won’t butter any parsnips.

The DUP didn’t even grant the UUP the dignity of using a heavyweight minister to respond to Elliott’s speech, as is customary at party conference time.

“This conference once again proved the UUP to be bereft of ideas and almost bereft of members too,” mocked mid- ranking DUP Assembly member Peter Weir.

Behind the scenes, the party is attempting to muster a workable revival plan. There are still plenty of people of energy in the party such as John McCallister, Mike Nesbitt and Basil McCrea, while the more veteran Danny Kennedy is doing a good job in the Department of Regional Development.

But the fact is inescapable that, similar to the problems that beset Margaret Ritchie as SDLP leader, Elliott hasn’t found that inspirational spark essential to political reinvigoration.

In his speech, he adverted to the necessity to avoid a two-party DUP-Sinn Féin state and paid tribute to the work of President Mary McAleese, a view that could not have been expressed 14 years ago when she was first elected.

Recovery, he said, required “a strong disciplined party and a clear, relevant platform for governance”. Which is fair enough. But whatever about discipline, which has been lacking, where is that platform? There was no evidence of it on Saturday.

Still, one very senior UUP politician who was maintaining the faith spoke of how the party has been in recent discussions with Fine Gael, seeking ideas on how to recharge flat batteries.

“A few years ago there was no hope for Fine Gael and Enda Kenny, but look at them now,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen in politics, and we are putting a renewal plan together, but we could also do with a bit of luck.”