Bullish mood at Ulster Unionist AGM... and a new-found sense of unity
The UUP AGM is now open to all members – the delegate system in the old Ulster Unionist Council is gone – and at least 360 of them crowded into the gathering on Saturday.
The mood was bullish – the sort of open division which once characterised UUP gatherings is gone and they seem to be well ahead on election preparations. That is partly because so many members of the once mighty party have left, both to the DUP on the right and Ni21 on the more liberal wing. There are now fewer factions to disagree with, the rancour has gone out of things.
Lord Empey, the party chair and ex-leader, said: "There is a new atmosphere in the party. It is the first time in a long time that I remember coming forward to elections where people were actually looking forward to them. It is an opportunity for us but the burden on the person at the top is immense."
The financial report still shows considerable debt – £309,000 – but that is down from over £1m in 2008 so there is a sense of a corner being turned. The party ran at a surplus of £15,347 over its outlay of £366,057 in 2012. It draws dividends from its share in Cunningham House, its former HQ. When there is sufficient buoyancy in the property market, there is planning permission to redevelop the site.
Amongst delegates the expectations are high that the party, which ran Northern Ireland for most of its history, is at last beginning to arrest its long decline. Mike Nesbitt, the leader, was returned unopposed and cheered to the rafters when he addressed the party faithful.
The stakes are very high and the party's main remaining problem may be projecting a clear and distinct message which can motivate the electorate. Its new found unity could dissipate in the face of electoral setbacks. Jim Nicholson is likely to retain his Euro seat but if he lost, that wouldn't be just a blow to morale, it would be financially difficult to bear because of the European allowances he brings with him.
The election to the 11 super councils, replacing the current 26, is an immediate test of the party's strength and appeal across the province. Mr Nesbitt would welcome a pan-unionist pact on transfers both in Europe and local government.
His speech seemed to position the party on more liberal ground to challenge Alliance's growing strength in the east of the province and head off any challenge from Ni21. There was no tub thumping or jingoism as he projected a civic unionism, focused on the economy and lifestyle. One problem is that the UUP's image has shifted as it sought to stave off defections of voters and members on both the right and the left.
Mr Nesbitt has succeeded in raising expectations within his party. His next challenge is getting a clear message across to the voters and ending the widespread confusion over what the UUP really stands for.