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UUP chief Nesbitt Leader has made progress, but if talks succeed his relevance will wane

By Liam Clarke

Published 26/10/2015

Reg Empey
Reg Empey

Mike Nesbitt has begun to answer the question: what is the UUP for?

The rhetorical answer from critics was that there was no purpose any more; it was a zombie party kept alive by a large, ageing membership. The leader's task was to manage decline as gracefully as possible.

That narrative has not changed, and it is putting clear orange water between it and its larger rival.

The UUP exaggerated the increase in its vote in 2014 - it only went up 1% from a record low in council elections and dropped 4% in Europe. By comparison, the DUP dropped 4% in the councils and just under 2% in Europe.

Yet the UUP now has two MPs, having lost its last six in the 2005 election, and 89 councillors, not to mention one MEP and 13 MLAs.

Mr Nesbitt joked that negotiations between him and Peter Robinson were compared to talks between a cat and a canary. He was cast as canary, but wasn't eaten.

Instead, he emerged from an electoral pact with the DUP with one seat gained off Sinn Fein in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and another from the DUP in South Antrim. The DUP won East Belfast, but there is a bullish feeling that the UUP wiped the bigger party's eye.

The two MPs, Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan, gave a celebratory account. "Danny does the socialising and I do the work," Mr Elliott joked. The truth is that the party hadn't expected his victory, and that made it all the sweeter.

On count night Mr Nesbitt had rung him to see how things were going. "I am about 500 votes ahead," came the reply. "How many boxes are there still to be opened?" asked the leader. "None, that's it, they are just checking now," was the deadpan retort from the Fermanagh farmer.

Reg Empey, the party chair, entitled his report A Real Breakthrough At Long Last.

Lord Empey, a former party leader, told the conference "these results would not have been possible without the decisions taken by Mike Nesbitt last spring, some of which were not too popular, even with our own supporters".

The UUP agenda is to take on the DUP in next year's Assembly elections and possibly form a cross-community coalition with the SDLP and Alliance afterwards. That won't be easy. If the current talks succeed in the coming weeks then the DUP will suddenly look good again and smaller parties will seem less relevant.

Yet Mr Nesbitt has shown that, even if he can't dance on the end of a pin, he can manoeuvre effectively in very tight corners.

He will need that quality in spades if his party is to achieve its ambitions.

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