Belfast Telegraph

Nicholson hands UUP an age-old headache

By Liam Clarke

Jim Nicholson, the MEP, will be 67 on Sunday. Besides wishing him a happy birthday - and many of them - it is worth observing that his advancing years are one factor behind the UUP's talks with the DUP.

Nicholson will be 69 when the next European election is held in 2014 and there are fears in UUP ranks that he might not stand again.

He has said nothing publicly, but all the travel from Northern Ireland is pretty gruelling and, by 2014, Jim will have been clocking up the air miles for a full quarter-century. His pension is well earned.

Nicholson was the only person ever elected for UCUNF, the short-lived Tory/UUP electoral alliance. Next time around, he will have to choose between the two parties.

If he doesn't go again, some in the UUP fear that the DUP could put up two candidates to snatch the seat, or so David McNarry told me.

That would deprive the UUP of European funds, as well as undermining its credibility and status.

In other words, the party fears the electorate and is trying to patch up a deal to slow down an anticipated decline.

The same could apply in Assembly elections, where the UUP takes the last seat in many constituencies, and in Westminster, where they have no seats at all, but could conceivably win one if the DUP didn't run against them.

These sorts of tactics involve managing decline and the UUP is embarrassed to admit what it is doing behind closed doors.

McNarry's main offence doesn't seem to be talking turkey with the DUP; it was talking to the Belfast Telegraph and letting the public know what was happening.

This is a debate which the UUP needs to bring into the open. A case can be made for linking up with the DUP; in spite of their historic differences and the bitterness that exists in some constituencies, there seems to be little practical difference between the policies of the two parties.

The UUP needs to consider whether it really has a continuing role as a separate entity, or would be better off striking a deal with the DUP before it loses further ground.

Tom Elliott's indignant reaction to merger proposals from the Tories and his recent statement to the News Letter that the UUP is not for sale indicate that he, at least, believes the party has a distinct identity and brand which is worth preserving. That is all well and good, provided it isn't just an emotional reaction, or plain cussedness. He now needs to spell out the party's distinct message, or, if necessary, go through the process of focus groups and consultation long advocated by David Campbell, the party's chairman.

There is time before the next election, but if the party doesn't start projecting a clear message, it can expect continued erosion of its base.

There are risks. If it gets the formula for a relaunch wrong, slow decline could be replaced by headlong collapse.

This could see the DUP - and perhaps other parties - picking up the pieces.

All parties periodically re-invent themselves, but the place they do it is normally when they are in Opposition.

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