Ulster Unionist Party conference: Hope after Nesbitt steadies ship

Analysis: The UUP leader is making progress while also exploiting the DUP’s difficulties

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt took over the party in March 2012 when the situation seemed desperate, but now there is a lot to play for. Photograph: PA

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt took over the party in March 2012 when the situation seemed desperate, but now there is a lot to play for. Photograph: PA

 

Mike Nesbitt has a fine office in Parliament Buildings, Stormont, with a commanding view of the statue of Edward Carson, the Ulster Unionist Party’s revered leader in the run-up to Irish partition in 1921.

This is the 110th anniversary of the party, and after a long period of decline its members are experiencing a rekindling of spirit and energy – just in time for its annual conference in Belfast on Saturday.

This is reflected by three framed newspaper reports hanging on the office wall.

The headlines are: “Resurgent UUP back in the mix,” from the Sunday Times; “Results augur well for Ulster Unionists,” from the Irish News; and from the Belfast News Letter, “UUP’s Kinahan takes seat from McCrea”.

It’s a big moment for Nesbitt and the UUP who are anticipating more such headlines. This is the first time in 12 years the party has a real chance to switch the graph from steep south to gradual north.

In the heady turbulent days directly after the 1998 Belfast Agreement the UUP was the senior party in the Northern Assembly with 28 seats, compared to 20 for the DUP.

But the constant assault and refrains of “Ulster Unionist sellout” from Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson against the then Ulster Unionist first minister David Trimble and against subsequent leaders Reg Empey and Tom Elliott took its toll, almost bringing the party to its knees.

By 2003 the DUP was the main party with 30 seats compared to 27 for the UUP.

Four years later it was 36 seats to 18 in favour of the DUP, while in the last Assembly poll in 2011 the DUP took 38 seats compared to just 16 for the Ulster Unionists. And it got worse.

Self-destructed

Nesbitt took over as UUP leader in March 2012, mid-way between the expelling of McNarry and the formation of NI21. It was a grim period for him and his party but from rock bottom the only way is up.

As leader Nesbitt has overseen three elections. In May last year the UUP provided the first signals its situation was not hopeless. The party elected 77 candidates to the North’s 11 new supercouncils, increasing its share of the vote by just over 1 per cent.

In the European Parliament election held at the same time the UUP’s great survivor, Jim Nicholson, was re-elected, albeit with the help of DUP candidate Diane Dodds’s surplus.

Two seats

These were big scalps and it was a significant psychological boost as the UUP had been without representation in the House of Commons since 2010.

Politics have changed dramatically in the past year or so, and now it is Robinson and the DUP who are under severe strain. There is the prospect of the UUP continuing to reverse the trend of the past dozen years.

There is also the irony that while Trimble virtually staked his party to get the powersharing administration up and running, Robinson appears to be risking his own credibility and that of the DUP to keep Stormont functioning.

Politics, as the DUP has demonstrated, is a cut-throat business, so for Nesbitt it probably seems reasonable that he should exploit the current situation for party political ends.

By withdrawing his Minister Danny Kennedy from the Northern Executive he forced Robinson into a series of damaging actions, including an effective boycott of the Executive, now reversed, which played badly with unionists. This has weakened Robinson and the DUP.

The added irony is that just like Trimble the DUP leader is trying to safeguard a devolved democratic powersharing system of government, but again like Trimble, in return he is getting grief rather than gratitude.

Nesbitt has to be careful. His Executive exit triggered a series of responses that led to last Tuesday’s assessment by a British government-appointed panel that not only is the IRA still in existence but it’s army council remains in operation and that IRA members believe the council “oversees both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy”.

If he overplays his hand he could be accused of action that could wreck the devolved administration his predecessor Lord Trimble helped to create.

The DUP and nationalist politicians already have accused him of playing selfish electoral politics with this crisis.

So far, however, Nesbitt has not overstepped the mark.

Columnist and political commentator Alex Kane, who previously served as UUP director of communications and before that as party adviser and speech writer, says Nesbitt has surprised people by how he has “steadied the ship” and created the prospect of gains in next May’s scheduled Assembly elections.

Ride the luck

Kane feels that the UUP can make further gains in the Assembly elections but they are unlikely to be dramatic. First, Nesbitt needs to get the party back from 13 to the 16 seats the UUP held at the start of this Assembly mandate. That means taking back seats in Strangford, Lagan Valley and South Down. That’s perfectly possible but not guaranteed.

Having elected two MPs in Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan there is a chance of the UUP gaining additional MLAs in each of their two constituencies, Fermanagh-South Tyrone and South Antrim.

Constituencies such as East Derry, North Down and North Belfast also offer potential.

The level of opportunity will hinge on the level of disenchantment with the DUP and that’s hard to quantify.

Anywhere close to 20 seats for the UUP can be marked as success.

How the party performs will also depend on what is the political climate coming up to May. If politics is still in crisis then that should benefit the UUP; if Robinson’s gamble of sticking with the talks results in a stabilised Stormont, then it could be a different story.

As Kane notes, “the DUP are at their most ruthlessly efficient when their back is to the wall”.

And, as ever, the big obstacle for the UUP is how to deal with the DUP’s trump card: the line that will be voiced loudly and frequently in the Assembly campaign: “If you don’t vote DUP you could end up with Martin McGuinness as first minister.”

That fear factor has worked in the past, and in May could slow down the progress the UUP is making.

Best option

Kane also makes the point that notwithstanding the “first minister” and “deputy” titles, Robinson and McGuinness hold joint office.

When Nesbitt took over the UUP in March 2012 the situation seemed desperate but now there is a lot to play for. Against the odds he has generated hope. The party is alive and beginning to kick.

Little wonder, therefore, that delegates preparing for the annual conference in the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast are in good heart.

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