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UUP conference: A dynamic duo ... but let's see if there's substance beyond the showmanship

By Suzanne Breen

Published 24/10/2016

Move over Marlene, there's a new double act in town. Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood took to the stage of the Ulster Unionist conference to convince the audience that, given a chance, they could be a star turn.

In crisp, well-cut suits they certainly looked the part. They delivered their lines with aplomb. But whether there is substance beyond the showmanship, and the pair can offer an alternative which puts the wind up Sinn Fein and the DUP, remains to be seen.

Still, they got off to a good start.

First up was the SDLP leader, who was warmly welcomed by delegates. It was impossible to imagine them rising to their feet so enthusiastically for his predecessor, Dr Alasdair McDonnell.

Any cynical souls in the hall were swiftly won over by the SDLP man's opening line. "You're probably surprised to see a bearded leader of Irish nationalism standing on this stage today. I'm pretty sure that in a few years' time, Gerry Adams will be telling everybody it was him who was here!" he joked.

Eastwood didn't shirk from reminding his audience of their political differences - he held an alternative view on Irish unity and he was a proud Remainer - and they admired his candour.

Certainly, nobody was checking to see if he was still in the room - and, more importantly, standing - when the conference concluded with God Save the Queen.

Not that this was the only music aired. The day began with Avicii's 'Wake Me Up', and Mike Nesbitt walked on stage to Two Door Cinema Club's 'Something Good Can Work'.

It was all very high tech, with the UUP's director of communications, John Moore, giving and taking instructions via a wireless headset.

"Ladies and Gentleman, please be upstanding for your party leader, Mike Nesbitt MLA," was the grandiose announcement as the main man presidentially strode up the aisle, hand-in-hand with his wife, Lynda Bryans.

Nobody delivers a speech more smoothly than Mike. He didn't falter, even for a nanosecond, when his tie mic failed mid-address. He casually sauntered back behind the lectern.

The DUP has gone on the attack against him recently and, while he didn't retaliate in the same ruthless fashion, there were several barbed remarks at Arlene and co.

Following May's mediocre election results for the party, a UUP councillor and a former MLA both defected to the DUP.

More, possibly high-profile, defections were also rumoured to be imminent.

Addressing nervy UUP members who might be thinking of jumping ship, Mr Nesbitt said: "To anyone looking to press the panic button, I say this. Are you so weak, you want to unravel four years work just because we didn't get all we wanted first time round? Are you so easily led that a siren voice in your ear is enough to make you change course?"

UUP insiders reckon that, despite the DUP's bombast, it has no VIP defections up its sleeve. They're calculating that, had that party a big card to play, it would have done so already.

"The DUP wouldn't wait until its conference next weekend to make such an announcement," a senior source said. "It would have done that on the eve of our conference in order to disrupt things."

The UUP can live with a few low-level defections. Anything more would be damaging.

Despite their leader's upbeat address - he boasted that the Young Unionists had signed up 72 new members at Queen's University's freshers' fair to become the biggest unionist grouping on campus - some delegates remained sceptical.

"Mike's speech was all vision and no sound," one said. "He failed to explain how we will ever again be competitive with the DUP. I fear we are destined to rattle along at no better than slightly larger than the Alliance Party."

There is also a clear contradiction in the UUP's pledge to provide robust opposition to the Executive and Mr Nesbitt's refusal, in a News Letter interview, to rule out another electoral pact with the DUP.

But, on Saturday anyway, the UUP leader was letting nobody take the wind out of his sails. He closed his speech by paying tribute to his wife, Lynda, and a very special guest - his 90-year-old mother, Paddy, who was seated in the front row.

"He's a wonderful son, so thoughtful and kind. Even as a boy, he never got up to mischief or caused trouble," she told this reporter.

"Mum may not be entirely accurate on the mischief front," Mr Nesbitt quipped. "And Lynda may not have given me such a glowing report!"

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