UUP confident over chances in 2016 Assembly elections

Annual conference: Mike Nesbitt hoping to regain votes lost to DUP rivals in recent years

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt says the party is steadily reversing its decline over the last decade and is set to go into Assembly elections next year with confidence about its chances with voters. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt says the party is steadily reversing its decline over the last decade and is set to go into Assembly elections next year with confidence about its chances with voters. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The Ulster Unionist Party’s annual conference is taking place in Belfast amid growing optimism among members and politicians regarding its future.

Delegates at the Ramada hotel in the south of the city will on Saturday hear leader Mike Nesbitt outline his views on an alternative programme for government.

The UUP has 90 councillors across 11 newly formed supercouncils, one MEP and 13 MLAs at Stormont.

The party withdrew its single minister from the Northern Executive over the summer in response to the fallout from police linking the murder of republican Kevin McGuigan to the IRA.

The party was buoyed in May with a “return to the green benches” of Westminster, following a five-year absence, after Danny Kinahan took the South Antrim seat from the DUP’s William McCrea and former leader Tom Elliott won Fermanagh-South Tyrone over Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew.

‘Reversing decline’

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, a former journalist who has been in the role since 2012, says the party is steadily reversing its decline over the last decade and is set to go into Assembly elections next year with confidence about its chances with voters.

“I’ll be calling for a mental health champion, but not a huge commission,” he said. “The big issue is that this is not as good as it gets 17 years on from the Belfast Agreement. Nobody imagined we would be in this mess.

“I’ll be outlining our vision for the future and we’ll be committing to an alternative programme for government.”

Mr Nesbitt is hoping to claw back votes that have gone to DUP rivals in recent years, and described Saturday’s conference as a “celebration”.

‘Bleak environment’

“It is a very important conference, not least because of our Westminster successes,” he said. “Despite the bleak political environment, this will be a celebration for the party. “We have new found belief in ourselves, credibility with the public and most importantly, momentum.”

A debate led by former regional development minister Danny Kennedy will explore themes around the current state of government in the North not being “politically, socially or economically, as good as it gets”, and the party leadership will be “commended for withdrawing from the Northern Ireland Executive”.

Preparations for an alternative programme for government for the 2016-2021 mandate of the Northern Ireland Assembly will be discussed and British Labour shadow secretary of state Vernon Coaker will address the conference, which is due to end at 3pm with the British national anthem.