How it all went wrong
The 2005 General Election left the Ulster Unionist Party politically decimated in its centenary year with only one UUP MP returned to Westminster. In a new book, Transforming Unionism, Michael Kerr who has worked for the party since 1999 and was part of its campaign team in this year's crucial election, examines what went wrong - and what must be done to put it right
The 2005 General Election left the Ulster Unionist Party politically decimated in its centenary year with only one UUP MP returned to Westminster. In a new book, Transforming Unionism, Michael Kerr who has worked for the party since 1999 and was part of its campaign team in this year's crucial election, examines what went wrong - and what must be done to put it right. In this exclusive extract from the book, entries in a daily journal he kept in the run-up to polling day reveal the mounting drama behind the scenes as the campaign was rocked by a series of setbacks. These included fierce criticism of the UUP's "Decent People" ad campaign, the revelation that former party leader Lord Molyneaux was appearing to back two DUP candidates, the defection of an entire South Belfast branch, a police search of a Unionist MLA's offices and Press reports about a "late night incident" involving another Unionist local government candidate APRIL 14
In this exclusive extract from the book, entries in a daily journal he kept in the run-up to polling day reveal the mounting drama behind the scenes as the campaign was rocked by a series of setbacks. These included fierce criticism of the UUP's "Decent People" ad campaign, the revelation that former party leader Lord Molyneaux was appearing to back two DUP candidates, the defection of an entire South Belfast branch, a police search of a Unionist MLA's offices and Press reports about a "late night incident" involving another Unionist local government candidate
Media failed to pick up on the fact that none of the candidates turned up for the poster launch (for the "Decent People Vote Ulster Unionists" ad campaign.)
They do however point out that the smiling youthful people on the poster look like they should be in a toothpaste ad and couldn't vote UUP even if they were decent enough to do so - they are unmistakably North American!
Today it was third time lucky for Molyneaux. The former UUP leader finally got it right backing David Burnside in South Antrim. Having gone over to the Dark Side twice in the last week - photographed with Splitter Spratt (DUP candidate Jimmy Spratt) and appearing in his former researcher Jeffrey Donaldson's election literature - (Yes, hard to believe it, I know, DUP as well), the UUP man comes up trumps to back a candidate from his own party! David Burnside (UUP).
Sighs of relief all around Cunningham House.
It is still three strikes and you're out in here, isn't it?
What Molyneaux actually said today on Talkback was our line. He seemed to be rowing backwards from what he had done.
Alex (Benjamin, UUP Communications Director) had been telling the press that the Spratt photo was just a snap taken at a Police Federation event.
Molyneaux said he had been in hundreds of photos and they could not all be taken to be endorsements of this or that.
He actually used our line, but naturally, time has been called on the story, the damage done, and the media largely ignored it.
Today we feel the campaign has really begun. DT (David Trimble) is very unhappy about the impact we are making in the media and the lack of direction after being knocked off course by Molyneaux/Smyth. This, however, is a good thing - we need to step up a gear.
Step it up a gear is exactly what (David) Ford has done. He has accused DT of trying to bribe him with a seat in the Lords in return for Alliance standing down in certain constituencies. I didn't realise DT had any favours left to give.
Like the Duppers, the only thing that seems to be capable of getting Ford's party front page news is Trimble.
Office is being bombarded with calls over 'decency' - someone said it must be a DUP dirty trick. Those sneaky Duppers.
3.30pm. News breaks that Michael Copeland has had his offices and home searched by PSNI over alleged links to a money-laundering investigation involving a Belfast estate agent.
Back to crisis management and fire-fighting already (how long had it been - six hours?).
If there is a silver lining on today's black cloud it is Molyneaux's endorsement of Trimble on today's 'Talkback' programme. Well, it was an accident, but an endorsement's an endorsement, right? - especially during an election.
When asked whether he was supporting UUP candidate (Burnside) or DUP candidates (Splitter Spratt and Donaldson) Jim said he was only supporting one candidate and that was 'David Trimble ... aaahhh ... I mean David Burnside'.
Thank you Freud.
9am. Campaign team on a major low today - more calls from the public regarding our 'Decent People ... ' ad, and they aren't people ringing in to congratulate us on another bright idea.
Copeland incident has totally knocked us for six. Fire-fighting the whole weekend instead of getting on with our positive campaigning.
Tim Lemon and Will Corry came in heavy at this morning's meeting to try and lift the spirits of some of the younger members of the War Room team. You could cut the sarcasm in the air with a knife.
Tim gave his single transferable speech about how people outside would give their right arm to be inside Cunningham House fighting this campaign for DT, and standing firm on the great progress we had made in Northern Ireland. He said people would be queuing up to do that job. I had averted my eyes from Alex Benjamin's gaze for as long as I could and when I finally made eye contact with him we both erupted into fits of laughter. 'Queuing up outside they are!' exclaimed Alex, 'and they'll be hammering the bloody doors down soon if we don't get back to work!'
1pm. Paisley comes out spitting fire at lunchtime. He tells journalists that any talk of 'dirty tricks' regarding the Copeland incident were a 'hellish lie'.
But who accused him and how does he know?
Not us any way. We didn't get round to it.
The DUP leader's old rallying slogan: 'If you throw a stone into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps is the one that's hit' rings true.
Manifesto launch put back until Wednesday. Alex comes clean about admitting to the press that we had actually cancelled our manifesto launch and got it in the neck a bit. I don't think he feels it there any more though.
We do, however, seem to be doing OK in North Down and South Belfast. Upper Bann still a worry but DT is getting a very good response on the doorsteps, as are most of our candidates.
6pm. We shut up shop early tonight and head into town for a few desperately needed pints at McHugh's Bar.
Terrible atmosphere, almost comical, the enthusiasm is running out of everyone. People are asking themselves what can possibly go wrong next?
Someone upstairs must have been listening in and not feeling in any way inclined to show mercy.
DISASTER STRIKES BEFORE WE HAVE FINISHED OUR FIRST PINT!
6.45pm. Alex takes a call from the News Letter's Political Editor, Stephen Dempster, who informs him they are running a story on UUP Lisburn Councillor David Archer in tomorrow's paper. David has apparently been involved in a 'late night drinking incident' with a mate at Lisburn's council offices.
7pm. I call DT, who sounds like he didn't even hear what I was saying. He responded with 'Oh, OK, fine', before hanging up. Guess he has his bad news deflector-shield switched on full beam!
Alex deals with the media gazing out of the dusty window of McHugh's smoking at least two cigarettes at once.
7.30pm. I finally manage to get Archer on the phone and thankfully he is not too far away. He agrees to come and sort things out.
8.30pm. By the time he arrives we have all moved upstairs to deal with some of the pints we had been addressing before Dempster interrupted us.
Archer calls to say he is downstairs. I rush down to meet him and buy him a double Bacardi and Coke. He needs it. He looks shattered. We chat for a while and then he calms down. He then turns to me in all seriousness and says, 'Is it just you here, Mike, yeh?'
Poor David fails to see the funny side of it when I tell him the whole campaign team is upstairs waiting for his version of events!
Anyway, after much pandemonium we eventually get things sorted out and David explains to the News Letter that he had had quite a few drinks with a friend and then foolishly used Lisburn's Council Office facilities to have a few more in the middle of the night. Good timing! Everyone sees the funny side of it but it's going to look awful in the papers.
I'm pretty sure he'll have to, well ... do the decent thing ... and ... fall on his sword. Alex suggests that the rest of us follow suit.
On April 19, as it emerged that North Down's council offices had also been raided by the PSNI, David Trimble warned his party to 'cut back the paranoia' over dirty tricks, and get on with running the general election campaign.
The following day, with the UUP manifesto launch set to take place, the papers report that David Archer Junior has quit the election race amidst an inquiry taking place into an alleged incident in Lisburn's council offices. The Council's Chief Executive had written to Archer stating that he was investigating a 'late night incident' in the Council's Members' Room, which had been logged by a security firm.
The same morning, Daily Ireland reported that the UUP's South Belfast Willowfield branch was disbanding as its 15 members intended to support the DUP's Jimmy Spratt.
This was quickly dismissed by Michael McGimpsey as 'another one of the DUP's dirty tricks'.
It seemed that no matter which way the party turned, there was to be no escaping it - scandal had poisoned the political atmosphere in Cunningham House and drowned out the party's message ahead of its delayed manifesto launch.
Atmosphere shocking in HQ today - Alex says he's 'demob happy!'
Geoff (McGimpsey) suggests forming an orderly queue outside DT's office to collect our machetes and directions for the leader's paranoia cull.
Archer is not in the papers but after it became apparent that an 'incident' is under investigation, he issued a statement saying he intends to resign from the electoral race and pursue business interests in London. None of us have any doubt he'll be back ... having done the decent thing and resigned ... I know ... but there's still mileage in it ... right?
In our morning meeting I make the suggestion that we should perhaps take the huge 'Decent People ... Vote' banner off the side of HQ? Nobody laughs!
Well it would be pretty funny, right, and we'd get a lot of media coverage for it, and they do say that all publicity is good publicity ...
They do still say that, don't they?
But seriously, the Copeland/Archer stuff has totally killed us off in what is supposed to be the beginning of our campaigning in earnest.
Instead, it's turned into a blow-by-blow nightmare. The DUP couldn't write the script.
Geoff McGimpsey looked at me in disbelief this morning, and said, 'Can you imagine two more weeks of this?'
'Yes,' I replied, 'Indeed I can.'
8am. Bad press today as the Archer 'incident' makes front page of the News Letter's country edition.
9am. Panic stations at dawn. DT bursts into the war room screaming at us that Burnside will not turn up for the manifesto launch unless all the 'Decent People' posters are scrapped from the launch. That is not a problem at the launch but it certainly is in terms of getting the candidates there.
None of our candidates know that the big red Westminster bus we have hired has 'Decent People ... Vote Ulster Unionists' plastered all over it!!!
9.20am. Campaign diary co-ordinator and bus expert, Barbara Knox, calls the bus people and tells them to scrape all the 'decency' stickers off the bus - ASAP. That will do rightly, no one will know any different.
10am. Call comes in from the bus driver that they have successfully sand blasted all the stickers off, along with about five coats of paint! The bus is totally unusable.
War room is in complete pandemonium.
10.07am. Joke doing the rounds that DT was seen going into his office at 9.30 with a shotgun in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. Half an hour later he staggers out completely drunk and shoots Alex Benjamin.
10.15am. The girls come up with a novel idea - blow up lots of helium balloons and tie them onto the bus. This will cover up the huge gaping patches where the 'decency' stickers have been sand blasted off.
At this stage no one would be surprised if Basil Fawlty walked into the building with a fire extinguisher in one hand and a can of red paint in the other.
We simply can't ditch the bus - the media are expecting it, as are all the candidates.
Barbara calls the driver and tells him to bring the bus anyway.
10.30am Burnside walks in the back door to find Brian Crowe, Alison Laird and myself maniacally pumping up helium balloons. 'Someone having a party?' he quips, smiles, and walks on.
10.40am. As the candidates begin to arrive, most of the balloons have been tied onto the bus, with ribbons and tape affixing them through the windows.
Geoff's dad, West Belfast candidate Chris McGimpsey, turns up, has one look at the balloons and says to me, 'Whose bloody idea was that?'
'Geoff's,' I replied.