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Confident UUP leader Tom Elliott pushes a proposal-packed plan

Ulster Unionists are the first of the Executive parties to launch their election manifesto. Political Correspondent Noel McAdam |takes a close look behind the rhetoric

Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott launches the party’s manifesto in the Linen Hall LibraryDARREN KIDD

So what’s the big idea?

Facing his first election test as leader — and in a double poll at that — Tom Elliott has come up with a proposal for an all-party, ongoing committee at Stormont to work out agreement on the outstanding remaining issues of discord, such as the school transfer debacle. Trouble is, a committee specifically on the thorny 11-plus problem already exists. It was formed as a result of the Belfast Telegraph’s ‘Sit Down, Sort It Out’ campaign. And though it has sat down, it is far from sorting anything out. Therefore, what are the chances that the new committee will not be just another talking shop?

Is this what the UUP calls its ‘game changer’?

No, it’s an add-on. Mr Elliott wants all-party talks to draw up a programme for government between the election results (May 7, probably) and the next Executive being formed (May 12, most likely). The advantage would be policies being agreed before the ministers who will implement them are appointed. But there is no sign yet that the other parties will take part. And does that mean that Ulster Unionists will not nominate a minister if there is no agreement? It’s not a question they are giving a clear answer on for now, but maybe it will come in time.

What else of interest is in the manifesto ?

The 38-page dossier is proposal-packed, including an investigation into how the domestic regional rate is spent, before any new decision on water charges; the reduction of the present number of councils to 15 not 11 as currently planned; creation of a food and drink task force; pre-school education becoming a universal entitlement, and victims of domestic violence being supported by the criminal justice system to enable them to proceed with prosecutions.

Any targets hit?

While insisting he is not for dwelling on the past, one of leader Elliott’s best lines was: “There would not now even be an Assembly if it had been left to the DUP.” He also said the rival unionist party appears happy “with stalemate, veto and an ‘us and them’ agenda”. And given his personal problems over the past year, the UUP obviously believes it is more beneficial to attack Peter Robinson individually than the DUP as a whole — over the issues of the prospect of Martin McGuinness as First Minister, and talks on a programme for government. “Isn’t it just a pity that Mr Robinson didn’t tackle any of these issues when he had the opportunity to do so?” he said.

How did the launch go?

It was a good idea to have one of the party’s exemplars of the new blood beginning to seep into the male-dominated, youth-challenged party — Colin McCusker, fighting the Upper Bann constituency — to open the event. But the location, a room at the Linen Hall Library, was cramped and hot. While he will never win prizes for public speaking, Elliott has become increasingly confident despite the severe setbacks the party’s campaign sustained from the outset — Health Minister Michael McGimpsey’s Altnagelvin decision, the scandal revealed by the Belfast Telegraph over a senior party official’s online activities, and an email warning against party in-fighting being sent to the wrong person. Tom wore a fetching red, white and blue tie. But so did a few others.

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