As Tom Elliott celebrates his victory the Ulster Unionist Party is at the lowest ebb in its history. Yet the Union it defends has never been more secure.
No major political party in Ireland now challenges Northern Ireland’s right to exist. The principle that Irish unity is impossible without northern consent is now in the Irish constitution and endorsed by Sinn Fein.
Elliott’s problem is that many who voted for him, mostly elderly men, count on him to act as if this had never happened. They want him to cut a deal with the DUP to defend the border, instead of taking them on on the economic and the social agenda which are of increasing concern to younger voters.
Before the poll Reg Empey, his predecessor, and Peter Robinson attempted to tie Elliott’s hands when they set up talks between the DUP and UUP on a joint electoral approach in Belfast council and Assembly elections next May. The argument is that his biggest priority must be to prevent Sinn Fein emerging as the biggest single party and Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. The only way he can be sure of beating McGuinness is to accept a strategy designed to give the DUP more unionist seats at Stormont. The implication is a merger, and if this is what he wants he should bite the bullet.
But it will go against the grain for him. Elliott is not a brilliant media performer, but he has character and he commands loyalty. It would be a mistake to underestimate him. The quietly spoken hayseed image conceals a sharp political brain. Expect this new leader to be his own man.
Liam Clarke is a journalist and author