Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

What now for UUP as voters fail to feel the force?

It's not simply just the question of should Sir Reg Empey be replaced; it’s the much more complicated question too — who should replace him?

Accepting that Reg Empey hasn’t delivered the dynamic leadership to resuscitate the Ulster Unionist Party at this election doesn’t make it any easier to identify who could. With no MP to boast of now and no young lieutenant forging through to snatch the baton, it’s a party that faces painful internal examination this weekend.

Around lunchtime on Thursday, one of its most senior strategists confided to me that it required a minimum of two Westminster seats captured from the DUP for UCUNF to survive that internal examination — it didn’t even get one.

South Antrim, East Belfast and Strangford were the three particularly targeted seats where the new Unionist/Conservative alliance had to bring home the bacon.

In the end, the unionist voters showed that they either weren’t ready for the proposition, or just didn’t like it period.

And if you look at Sylvia Hermon’s personal triumph of more than 21,000 votes, then you might ask if the bourgeois unionists of North Down aren’t prepared to stomach the Tories, is there any hope for UCUNF?

Given the chance to help form the next Government of the United Kingdom by supporting the Unionist/Tory alliance with its unwieldy title, the electorate here appears to have said the equivalent of ‘not really interested’ and that snub is worthy of much closer analysis in due course.

It does raise the fundamental question that if the prospect of electing a candidate to be part of the next government in London doesn’t do the trick to motivate the unionist electorate to rally behind David Cameron, will the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists’ New Force ever take off here?

Those who advocated its creation might argue that with DUP majorities diminished in most constituencies, the project’s best election performances lie ahead — but in the immediate future the merits of the alliance are difficult to detect in the results.

I did say weeks ago that Peter Robinson could lose his seat when fellow commentators, even as late as midnight on Thursday in an RTE studio, scoffed at the idea.

I knew from the ordinary people on the ground in that area what the feeling was towards him and his wife over their incautious dealings and his very confrontational personal style — which alienated swathes of young middle-class voters in his constituency over Easter.

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