Irish dancing, hurling ... So, not your usual Ulster Unionist Party knees-up

Doug Beattie’s liberal, inclusive brand of unionism makes for a viable, stable alternative

‘By the time UUP leader Doug Beattie arrived on stage, the party faithful – reduced to a socially distanced 330 due to Covid-19 – was well primed for the customary standing ovation.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

‘By the time UUP leader Doug Beattie arrived on stage, the party faithful – reduced to a socially distanced 330 due to Covid-19 – was well primed for the customary standing ovation.’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

At the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) conference in Belfast on Saturday, there was much that was new.

The display of Irish dancing was a first for a unionist party conference; in a similar vein was the party political broadcast featuring a young girl with a hurl, as well as the boys playing football and rugby, and the breadth of experience outlined by the party’s new candidates for the Assembly elections.

Julie-Anne Corr-Johnstone, a former Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) councillor from north Belfast, described how her teachers had warned she would amount to nothing more than a “Ballysillan Milly”; how the map of the world which she once used to cover the cracks in the walls in her damp, mould-ridden home now hangs in her constituency office.

Foyle councillor and former soldier Ryan McCready – who quit the DUP over its removal of Arlene Foster as leader – told of the “ferocious fire-fight in Afghanistan” which ended when an enemy grenade exploded, “knocking me to the ground and sending shrapnel into my body and face”.

Stephen McCarthy, the party’s South Belfast candidate and its first from a working-class, Catholic background, introduced speakers from England, Scotland and Wales, including Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, another former soldier, who paid tribute to UUP leader Doug Beattie as the “bravest” man he knows.

Little wonder then that by the time Beattie arrived on stage, the party faithful – reduced to a socially distanced 330 due to Covid-19 – was well primed for the customary standing ovation.

Beattie has proven a popular leader – the party chairman, Danny Kennedy, revealing that he had been re-elected as leader unanimously at the agm the previous evening – and his liberal, inclusive brand of unionism has made for a viable and stable alternative for unionists, not least those seeking an alternative to the DUP.

Straight talking

Much of this is down to Beattie’s straight-talking personality – as he said in his speech, he is “at times a little rough around the edges” – but even those who do not agree with him respect him for it.

“We are the Ulster Unionist Party and we are back,” he said, concluding his speech with a fist to the podium and another standing ovation.

UUP leader Doug Beattie ‘has proven a popular leader – the party chairman, Danny Kennedy, revealing that he had been re-elected as leader unanimously at the agm the previous evening’. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
UUP leader Doug Beattie ‘has proven a popular leader – the party chairman, Danny Kennedy, revealing that he had been re-elected as leader unanimously at the agm the previous evening’. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

That sense of a “positive unionism” articulated in his and others’ speeches was reflected by delegates. “The attitude has shifted,” said one local councillor. “What we’re saying hasn’t changed, but I think our way of saying it has. But there’s a positivity, and members are picking up on that.”

Ian Marshall, the former independent unionist senator and now member of the UUP, has detected a change. There is a “feeling of positivity and of hope”, he said; in Beattie, there is a leader who is “proud to say I’m British, I’m Irish, I’m working for everybody in Northern Ireland”.

The most recent LucidTalk opinion poll, published in August, would appear to endorse both Beattie and his party; he is second only to his party colleague, Stormont Minister for Health Robin Swann, in the approval ratings, and the UUP, on 16 per cent, is ahead of both the DUP and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

Yet, as every politician knows, the only numbers that count are those tallied on election day; last time around, in admittedly very different circumstances in 2017, the UUP polled 13 per cent to the DUP’s 28.

In 2015, taking two seats in the Westminster elections made for a confident party conference, but brought no boost to UUP numbers when it came to the Assembly vote in 2016.

Beattie and the UUP has set out its stall; it remains to be seen whether enough voters will buy what they are selling.

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