Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

UUP leader yet to bring an edge to party policy

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt

When he took over as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt told a closed meeting that he should be judged on his first 100 days.

That deadline passed largely unnoticed in July but this Saturday he will very definitely be judged by the party which elected him by such a resounding majority 175 days earlier.

A lot is riding on the speech he will deliver at lunchtime and comparisons with his last one are inevitable.

Then he spoke of making the UUP the "party of choice for every pro-Union voter in Northern Ireland, including those who still say they want a united Ireland, but privately accept there is no longer a single reason not to enjoy their continued membership of the United Kingdom''.

He was rolling out the welcome mat for pragmatic Catholic voters. They may, to borrow the image of one of Mr Nesbitt's predecessors, Lord Trimble, have found Northern Ireland a "cold house" in the past, but may see practical advantages in UK citizenship.

He also spoke of injecting a sense of purpose into the party which, many members believe, has drifted from one thing to another since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

He has, by all accounts, succeeded in streamlining some of the party's structures. He managed to discipline Lord Maginnis for offensive comments about gay marriage, in which the unionist grandee spoke of bestiality and paedophilia.

Lord Maginnis resigned but Mr Nesbitt managed the affair without provoking a wider split. That is no mean achievement.

This weekend, observers will be looking for the vision thing. Mr Nesbitt still speaks of the UUP as a "liberal, progressive, unionist party" and those are clearly his instincts. Yet, as Peter Robinson delights in saying, it is hard to find many clear policy differences between the UUP and the DUP.

Without some clear points of contrast, voters may plump for the bigger party or, particularly in the east of the province, could drift to Alliance.

His former allies in the Tories are also bidding for disgruntled members. Mr Nesbitt has limited room for manoeuvre in preventing this sort of squeeze.

Mr Nesbitt has few jobs to give out - just one ministry, for instance. Without the ability to reward and punish, any democratic leader will struggle to maintain order and prevent defections. Mr Nesbitt has tried to keep all sides happy.

He is not an Orangeman, but in recent days the UUP has justified the Orange Order's reluctance to speak to residents groups.

Nailing his colours to the mast like this may have ticked a box for some influential party factions, but it is hardly striking out in a new, more liberal direction, or showing much difference from the DUP.

When he was elected earlier this year, Mr Nesbitt united nearly all wings of the party largely on the basis that he would be a good communicator and was a modern, go-ahead sort of person.

He gave few awkward policy pledges which might have upset the celebratory mood; it was more a case of onwards and upwards with the UUP.

On Saturday, he could say something more edgy and innovative. The question is whether his party will give him the latitude to do so.

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