Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: UUP must reform or wither and die

A cynic might wonder not who will be the next leader of the UUP, but why anyone would want to head up a party seemingly in a doomed tailspin.

For the once-mighty voice of unionism has now been decimated by the DUP at successive elections and is riven with internal divisions and lacking any coherent direction.

Anyone wanting to turn around the fortunes of the party will need to be both an optimist and someone with remarkable leadership qualities.

The immediate task for the new leader will be to define what the party stands for. That was something that outgoing leader Tom Elliott was unable to do effectively. He seemed keen to appease all sections of the party and, inevitably, ended up pleasing no-one. His successor must learn from that and set out his vision for the future. This newspaper believes that vision should include a move towards liberal unionism.

The DUP, which has essentially taken the old UUP ground, can claim with some validity to have liberalised its views in recent times, but Ulster Unionists should seek to encompass a wider unionism, the sort of voters who have deserted the polls because they feel no-one represents their views. This is not a time for fighting old battles like the constitutional issue, but for setting a new agenda for a new Northern Ireland.

And that could perhaps mean the UUP going into opposition at Stormont as suggested by one leadership candidate. That could give the party a relevance and focus which is so evidently missing at the moment. The longer the party is seen as wallowing in the doldrums, the harder it will be to attract new supporters.

At the moment, its reputation is simply that of a party in decline, a sure recipe for disaster. The new leader must find a way of reaching out beyond the traditional die-hard UUP supporter to connect with younger, more liberal voters.

Otherwise the party will just continue to wither.

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