Belfast Telegraph

Gail Walker: No wonder Flash Harry wanted to break free from tired old UUP

By Gail Walker

Flash Harry goes. But Tom Drones on and on (Still no-one, but no-one is throwing any knickers on that stage.)

Few who watched new UUP leader Tom Elliott’s speech at last weekend's party conference would have been convinced that a bright new dawn was beckoning for the party.

No, boys (and they are largely boys), that light you hope is at the end of the tunnel is actually an express train gathering speed.

Almost proud of its tediousness, Elliott's address exposed a layer of the unionist psyche which bears some scrutiny — an almost pathologically perverse belief that dullness and plainness can be equated with honesty and integrity.

Grey men in grey suits — that's all ye know and all ye need to know. Charisma and Fancy Dan talk is for other people, not for us.

You don't have to be a slippery Mandelson to point out that having your man saying: “So let no-one try and say that Tom Elliott is some sort of political dinosaur: for I am not”, is simply inept, not some kind of admirable plain speaking.

For, if anyone has linked Tom Elliott firmly to the phrase ‘political dinosaur’ that man is Tom Elliott.

I mean, no slight to Mr Elliott's politics or personal integrity, but in terms of presentation, he and his party are still rubbing sticks together hoping to stumble upon the secret of fire. Empty chairs in the hall, party logo never properly in shot during the speech — this is the stuff of basic political literacy.

There was nothing in the speech to object to particularly (a glide over an awkward truth here, a sly dig at opponents there), apart from that strange in-house “let's do it for Bertie Kerr” ending.

But the point is, the Ulster Unionists are largely talking to their ever-decreasing selves.

Northern Ireland is changing. We are not the same people as we were 50, 30, even 15 years ago. It isn't enough to be “right” any more, you've also got to convince people that, well, you're like them and, even better, you like them.

Whisper it quietly, but women are in the workplace and thousands of couples cohabit.

We watch 24/7 rolling news and do not make funny faces when confronted with foreign food. We don't spend our evenings reading stories from the People’s Friend to the family gathered round the hearth. No, we're into X Factor, Strictly and Desperate Housewives, and listening to Abba and, yes, Queen.

Which is where Harry Hamilton comes in. Blatter on all you want about liberal unionists and traditional unionists, but Hamilton's squeezing out in Upper Bann shows a party which simply no longer recognises its own electorate.

His Freddie Mercury tribute act drew sneers from political enemies — and nominal friends — but Hamilton was a gift to the party: committed, clever, genuine, with oodles of charm. He polled well too.

Alas, last weekend showed that, quite simply, there is no room for ‘Flash’ of any description in the modern UUP.

Or indeed anyone outside an increasingly abnormal ‘norm’. An entertainer in politics? A woman? A gay man? A working-class man (the honourable Fred Cobain excepted)? Are you crazy?

Easier to be dull and boring and convinced of your own rightness. In a pin-striped suit.

The forthcoming Assembly elections should have been easy meat for the UUP, given that the DUP is mired by the compromises of Irisgate but, sadly for Glengall Street (yeah, I know, but it feels like it), it looks like the party is sleepwalking into disaster while dreaming its dream that nothing really has changed.

But it has ...

Meanwhile, Peter Robinson — a dead man walking just a few months ago — has re-invented himself as a “peacetime unionist” and his party is repositioning itself to sweep a few more UU voters into its ever-eager arms.

Alliance siphons off ‘liberal unionists’ and goes to the trouble to at least seem to try and reflect social realities here.

Ah well. Harry Hamilton awaits a call from the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party awaits a call from the electorate.

I have a pretty good idea whose phone is going to ring first ...

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