How times have changed for the once mighty Ulster Unionist Party which ruled Northern Ireland with unchallenged authority for decades, until direct rule was introduced 40 years ago.
Now it is a party seemingly intent on implosion. Part of the reason is that, although severely depleted in political representation, it is still a broad church party. That makes it inherently unstable, particularly at times of crisis. A leader who appeals to the conservative wing of the party will annoy the liberals and vice versa.
Mike Nesbitt is learning that lesson. He now faces losing one of the most charismatic members of the party, Basil McCrea, in a fall out over flag |flying policy. He feels Mr McCrea has broken party discipline by publicly criticising the policy |which he had previously endorsed. He was under pressure to bring the sometimes maverick MLA to heel and therefore withdrew the party whip leaving Mr McCrea to consider his options — probably to leave for another party.
All this will have the DUP smirking even more than usual. The UUP has already lost its only MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, along with Alan McFarland, David McNarry and Lord Maginnis from its ranks in the last two years and can ill-afford to see another leading figure seek a new political home.
Mike Nesbitt was well aware of the nature of |the task before he even joined the UUP, never mind took over as leader. It has a propensity for self-destruction and bitter internal rows and the new leader, even as he attempts to instill discipline, seems powerless to create any stability.
When he was elected leader it was hoped that |his media background would make him an ideal communicator both within the party and to a wider audience. In spite of his undoubted skills in this area, his message does not seem to be getting through to the rest of the party.
He needs to make an impression soon, because the continued decline of the UUP — just like the decline of the SDLP — is bad for politics as it strengthens the hand of the DUP and Sinn Fein, narrowing the voting options for the electorate.