Alex Kane: If UUP can’t exploit the DUP’s gaffes in May election it’s in big trouble
The last electoral highpoint for the UUP was in 2015. It won two Westminster seats, adding to the better than expected gains at the local council elections a year earlier.
But in the Assembly and general elections in 2017, it lost six MLAs (followed by Mike Nesbitt's resignation as leader) and both MPs. So it has two big challenges at the local elections on May 2: make gains in Belfast, preferably at the expense of Alliance, which leads the UUP in votes and councillors, and narrow the gap in numbers between it and the DUP.
If, after RHI, the Assembly's ongoing absence, a few internal 'personal' embarrassments for the DUP and the growing toxicity between it and Sinn Fein, the UUP can't make inroads into the bigger party's vote, then it raises the question of whether the UUP is, in fact, a serious electoral challenge. It's why Robin Swann devoted so much of Saturday's speech to the DUP. As he noted: "Be in no doubt that this is a vital election year for our party."
He also noted: "We cannot be ignorant to the climate that the DUP and Sinn Fein are trying to create in this election. They are already warming up as though this election is a border poll."
He's right. Neither party can take any slippage. It's not certain if there will be a resolution to Brexit, but one way or another it will have a huge impact on DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein deputy chief Michelle O'Neill.
One wants a vote that sends a message that a border poll is a waste of time; while the other wants a vote to bolster the case for the poll. Against that sort of background both the UUP and SDLP could take very damaging hits.
Given that the DUP keeps saying that "four of the five parties would sign up for the Executive tomorrow", it was interesting to hear Swann say: "Before the UUP would even consider returning to an Executive there must be fundamental reform to governance and the petition of concern, and no going back to the days when the PoC could be thrown around to block or protect whenever the DUP and SF fancied it."
That's a bold and sensible move, bearing in mind that issues like same-sex marriage and abortion could be put to straight votes.
Interesting, too, that he says: "Leaving the EU without a deal would be detrimental particularly for those in NI... the DUP's inept handling of Brexit has now led us to the NI-only backstop they first missed in 2017."
The real problem for the UUP is that the wider electorate may not be hearing its message if it is drowned out by a louder 'let's-prove-we-don't-need-a-border-poll' message from the DUP.
Swann is softly-spoken. He needs to make himself and a clear message heard. He also needs to dispel the claims that the UUP is, when it comes down to it, DUP-lite.