Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

UUP mood upbeat, but Mike Nesbitt project could face its Waterloo in Europe

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt

After two splits since he became leader, Mike Nesbitt has a united party behind him. So, with fairly high confidence ratings of 94% among the members we surveyed, he has an opportunity to make his mark.

The UUP is now in an upbeat mood. Members say that the departure of Basil McCrea and John McCallister earlier this year to form NI21 has, along with the defection of David McNarry to Ukip in 2012, left the UUP a tighter and happier ship. It is readier to forge ahead.

There was a purposeful buzz at conference but that could all change, of course, if its doesn't do well in next year's European and local government elections.

If Jim Nicholson loses the party's Euro seat it could be curtains for both Mr Nesbitt and perhaps the UUP itself. The party has sold its headquarters twice to help balance the books and is now heavily dependent on European allowances to make ends meet.

Mr Nesbitt must either keep the DUP on the hop or ally himself with it so that the bigger party doesn't defeat Mr Nicholson by running a second European candidate.

Conference's mood was for taking on both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Danny Kennedy, the Regional Development Minister, told delegates: "It's time to remind the public that there is another way – there is an alternative leadership for Northern Ireland – we never stopped being on standby and we are hungrier than ever to step in. The Ulster Unionist Party and SDLP have the capacity to work together effectively once again – to provide lasting stability, to provide leadership and to once again provide the solid centre foundations to build a better future for everyone".

Getting closer to the SDLP is one part of the plan. Another is isolating Sinn Fein and challenging its relationship with the DUP.

That was spelt out by Tom Elliott, former party leader and now Haass negotiator, at a fringe meeting.

He recounted how all the other parties had been united against Sinn Fein on a Bill promoted by Jim Allister banning the employment of released IRA prisoners as special advisers only after Anne Travers, whose sister Mary was murdered by a Sinn Fein adviser, championed the issue.

"We really need parties outside of those terrorist groupings to weigh in with one message. We are trying to ensure that the vast majority of us are going in to Haass with a common message," Mr Elliott said.

Aligning itself with victims' concerns is seen by the UUP as a winning hand.

It is hoping to play it on the new trauma centre, and after that it will try to get the legal definition of a victim changed to exclude those involved in violence.

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