Belfast Telegraph

Why next UUP leader must grasp the mood for change

By Ed Curran

Damned if it does. Damned if it doesn't. That appears to be the fate of the Ulster Unionist Party, whoever is chosen as the next leader. Damned if the party closes ranks with the Democratic Unionists. Damned if it continues to plough its own shallow furrow alone.

Damned if it leaves the Stormont Executive and sets up in opposition. Damned if it stays put and lives in the shadow of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Faced with so many political choices and dilemmas, who in their right mind would want to be the leader of the Ulster Unionists? He - I say 'he' because the party looks bereft of female candidates - will need to be extraordinarily dexterous to survive.

This was a job that was not made for Tom Elliott, a decent farmer from Co Fermanagh, devoted to the cause of keeping his native county and Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

Fermanagh unionists - like Fermanagh nationalists - have always been a breed apart, perhaps, more unionist and more nationalist than in any corner of Northern Ireland. They live their lives in the shadow of a border one side wishes to preserve and the other wants to dismantle.

Tom Elliott was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. When he used the word "scum" in the context of Sinn Fein hecklers, he betrayed that he was still a prisoner of a very painful past for his people in Co Fermanagh.

When he said he wouldn't go to a gaelic match, he misread the desire for change on both sides of the divide. When confronted with television or radio, his blunt rural accent grated on urban viewers and listeners. At times it has seemed as if Tom Elliott might be more at home at the Balmoral Show than in the cockpit of Ulster political life.

Vision, personality, judgement, and good communication skills would appear to be essential attributes for an aspiring political leader today. If the outgoing leader of the Ulster Unionist Party were found wanting in this regard, can the candidates to succeed him prove any better?

Like political Lord Lucans, some of the unionist grandees are nowhere to be seen in this crisis.

Somewhere, too, out there in the wilderness, the lost tribe of former Ulster Unionist supporters is wandering aimlessly and apathetically. There may be as many as 40,000 forlorn souls who see no point in voting unionist any more.

Maybe they feel that the Union is so secure they don't need to. Maybe, they couldn't take the likes of David Trimble, Reg Empey and now Tom Elliott being in charge of their destiny. Whatever the reason, they are out there somewhere and any new leader must take the opportunity to garner their support.

To do so, Tom Elliott's successor will have to demonstrate a clearer vision of where the Ulster Unionist Party is heading. He will need also to have the personality and media-savvy mind to put across his message.

And, just as important, he must display better judgement in dealing with difficult issues internal and external to the party.

Damned if he does. Damned if he doesn't. That is the dilemma for the new leader.

The Ulster Unionist Party is not right, left or centre. It is not conservative or liberal. It is a unique mixture of all these components, some more than others.

In that respect the UUP is more like a church than a political party. Any leader - just like a Presbyterian Moderator - must be aware that if people don't like the sermon, they will walk away as so many have done already.

So here are some questions for the aspiring candidates to answer.

Will you keep the party in the Stormont Executive or does it have a better future in opposition? Will you take the party closer to the DUP, further away, or where? What do you see as the difference between the UUP and the DUP? Conservative or liberal unionist - how would consider yourself? Do you support or oppose linking up with the Conservative Party? What is your vision for Northern Ireland?

If I were a delegate selecting Tom Elliott's successor, I would want clear and unequivocal answers to all the above questions. Therein is the party's problem. Can any new leader muster sufficient agreement on all of the answers?

Damned if he does. Damned if he doesn't. Who would wish to be leader of the Ulster Unionist party?

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