Belfast Telegraph

Policy, not personality must take precedence

The UUP badly needs a fresh face to replace Sir Reg Empey. More importantly, it needs policies to persuade voters to return to the fold, argues Owen Polley

Ulster Unionist MLAs Basil McCrea and Tom Elliott are now on the home straight of a headlong dash to become 'heir to Empey'.

The starter's pistol fired when Sir Reg confirmed he would step down as party leader on September 22. That evening, UUP members vote at Belfast's Waterfront Hall for a replacement.

Whoever breasts the finishing tape first, Ulster Unionists will hope that the race is decided by a vigorous contest of ideas - and not just the inevitable clash of personalities.

The UUP needs a fresh face at its helm if it is to enthuse the electorate but, more urgently, it has to provide voters who abandoned it with concrete reasons to return to the fold.

To give Sir Reg his due, he took radical steps to revitalise Ulster Unionism, forming a pact with the Conservative Party, which almost put Northern Ireland MPs in government.

In its execution, though, UCUNF lacked conviction and the New Force's message was muddled.

Ultimately, the leader has to take responsibility for that failure, but at least Sir Reg made a serious attempt to carve out a new role for the UUP in unionist politics.

If his successor can show as much imagination and follow through on ideas with more resolve, there is a chance the party's fortunes could be revived.

This is, then, a critical leadership contest for the UUP, but it had been strangely sedate, until the contenders clashed publicly over attitudes to the GAA and homosexuality, with McCrea accusing Elliott of intolerance. It was an acrimonious spat which illustrates real differences in approach between the two men.

Elliott may position himself as a consensus candidate, building a wide coalition of supporters from across the UUP. Ultimately, however, the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA best represents the more traditional wing of the party and its values.

Elliott claims backing from liberal figures, emphasising that he will not countenance a full merger with the DUP. But he is known to be broadly sympathetic to the concept of 'unionist unity', and he has made scuppering Martin McGuinness's first-ministerial ambitions the central goal of his campaign.

The MLA is also heavily involved in the Orange Order, and backed the process which saw a single unionist candidate contest the Westminster seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone.

Elliott will appeal to rural UUP members who believe that the party is currently too preoccupied with constituencies in and around Belfast.

Ulster Unionist candidates claim more votes in constituencies with an urban sensibility, in the east of the province, but membership is concentrated in rural areas, particularly in Fermanagh.

He hopes that will give him an edge over his Lisburn-based rival, whose unionism has a decided metropolitan liberal tinge.

Basil McCrea is equipped with all the political skills a leader might need to be successful, but in the curious world of Ulster Unionism, that could be as much a handicap as an asset.

The Lagan Valley MLA is an assured performer, and he's also prepared to reach beyond unionism's traditional boundaries, involving himself in a range of cross-community initiatives.

These are valuable qualities for a modern party leader but older members might find it easier to identify with a bluff Fermanagh farmer, whose milieu is the Orange Hall, rather than a slick politician, quite comfortable taking part in a gay pride debate or attending a GAA match.

Perhaps unfairly, there is a perception that McCrea has not yet explained his core political beliefs, beyond tolerance and pluralism, to the unionist grassroots.

He attempted to put 'meat on the bones' last week at Belfast's Merchant Hotel, announcing five leadership pledges. The MLA hopes that these undertakings, which include a promise to make Caitriona Ruane's education ministry a target portfolio for the UUP, kill the notion that he represents style over substance.

McCrea is eager to stress that his message is business-friendly, but he expresses scepticism about the UUP's Conservative link. He is prepared to countenance co-operation between the two parties, but criticises an electoral pact as ill-conceived.

It is clear that the Conservative affiliation will not survive, in its present form, but the link is unavoidably at the top of the 'to do list' for any new UUP leader. With the finish line in sight, Basil McCrea will hope that his 'pledges' give him a more concrete prospectus for leadership than his opponent.

It is certainly questionable whether Elliott can deliver on his aspiration to prevent a Sinn Fein First Minister without first striking a deal with the DUP.

The Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA is still a marginal favourite but there are signs that McCrea is gaining momentum.

By the time votes are cast, the UUP's most important race could well be too close to call.

Owen Polley is a unionist blogger and commentator

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