Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

UUP must take a long, hard look at its place in politics

The Ulster Unionists have more to decide on than a new leader. The party has to work out what it stands for, writes David Gordon

Tomorrow's meeting of the UUP Executive will not be a happy affair in the wake of last week's General Election results. There will be sadness, too, if the widespread speculation proves correct and Sir Reg Empey calls it quits as leader.

There is a lot of personal respect for him in the party and sympathy will not be in short supply.

But all parties have to pick themselves up from electoral setbacks, sooner or later, if they are to stand any chance of survival.

The UUP certainly has to take a long, hard look at itself - as well as getting on with picking a new leader.

Four MLAs have been mentioned as contenders for the top spot, although wisely no one has declared his hand with Sir Reg still officially at the helm.

The names featuring in the conjecture are deputy leader Danny Kennedy, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, Fermanagh man Tom Elliott, and Lagan Valley representative Basil McCrea.

Mr Kennedy and Mr Elliott are both stalwart Orangemen and are viewed as most likely to favour some kind of move towards unionist unity.

They come from a similar wing of the party and could cancel each other out if they both put their names forward.

Mr McGimpsey has a high profile and is not regarded as the most enthusiastic supporter of the UCUNF project within the UUP.

But he could suffer by his association to both the Trimble and Empey leaderships - neither of which can be said to have led the party into the promised land.

Basil McCrea should be seen as a wild card contender.

He is also not viewed as a UCUNF devotee and has floated the idea that the UUP should pull out of the Executive and go into Opposition.

This would be a risky move, as would electing Mr McCrea as leader.

If he is to stand any chance, he will need to gain a higher level of support in the wider party than he currently enjoys in the UUP Assembly group.

In a way the Ulster Unionists are facing a similar choice to the SDLP when it picked a successor to Mark Durkan earlier this year. The likes of Danny Kennedy can be seen as the safer, continuity option - Margaret Ritchie in a suit.

There are also bigger decisions to be made on where the party goes politically.

Will it persist with the UCUNF link to the Conservatives, even while David Cameron's Government is taking highly unpopular decisions?

If it does stick with the Tory tie-up, it will once again face the fact that not all unionist voters are Conservatives.

On top of this, as a recent Belfast Telegraph poll indicated, David Cameron and his party are not well liked by Catholics.

That may help explain why UCUNF failed to attract significant cross-community votes in places like South Antrim.

The biggest problem for the UUP is working out what it stands for in today's political environment. The DUP has now moved onto its ground to such an extent that it is difficult to see much basic difference between them.

Indeed at times in recent months, it appeared that the Ulster Unionists were moving to the right of their unionist rivals.

The DUP's election message was all about making the best of the Stormont set-up and keeping Northern Ireland "moving forward".

Meanwhile, the UUP has been voting against the devolution of policing and justice powers and going on about how a pro-Union prime minister was really needed in Downing Street.

Quite why unionists would need such a comfort blanket given the now widespread acceptance of the consent principle is an interesting question.

The electoral weakness of the Ulster Unionists provides another reason to think twice about unionist unity moves.

A link-up with the DUP could turn out to be more like a takeover bid than a merger.

And when it comes to naming a new united unionist party, they could take the first word of the DUP's name and the second of the UUP's...

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