From unity to discord... the UUP has an identity crisis
The Ulster Unionists must commit to a strategy and stick to it, says Owen Polley
Ulster Unionists were in buoyant mood when they gathered at the Europa Hotel for their 2009 Conference. Delegates heard William Hague, one of British politics' most exhilarating orators, promise to put Northern Ireland "at the heart of the Union" and UUP leader, Sir Reg Empey, predicted that the party would sweep all before it, as the DUP proved 'a beaten docket'.
Little more than 12 months later and the message from 2010 conference was rather less upbeat.
On Saturday, the man who replaced Empey felt moved to introduce himself to members of his own party with the words, "Tom Elliott is not a political dinosaur". The new leader fretted about the DUP's plans to attract moderate voters, while UUP chairman David Campbell lashed out at the latest batch of Ulster Unionist defectors.
Any party is obliged to be optimistic about its prospects at conference, but the defensive note this year was unmistakable. Alongside the debacle of May's Westminster election and a fractious leadership battle, the UUP has haemorrhaged talent at an alarming rate over the past year.
In its defence the party points out that there are now over 2,500 Ulster Unionist members - more than at the same point in 2009. The outflow, however, includes the UUP's last remaining MP, an MLA, its director of communications, former candidates and senior activists.
The party's decision to fight May's election on a joint ticket with the Conservative Party cost it Sylvia Hermon, who later retained her North Down Westminster seat as an independent. Alan McFarland followed his mentor out of the UUP, losing it an Assembly seat.
Two prominent representatives was a high price to pay for UCUNF, but it might have been worth it, had the experiment not collapsed after one disappointing election.
The UUP's Conservative connection enabled it to assemble some promising candidates, whose tolerant social attitudes complemented strong unionist convictions. Although the Westminster poll went badly, the party could at least look to develop this seam of liberal talent, which distinguished it from its rivals at the DUP.
Instead the Ulster Unionists binned UCUNF, appointed a leader described as a "traditional unionist" and ignored some of its brightest stars for the forthcoming Assembly election. Trevor Ringland, Paula Bradshaw and Harry Hamilton, all of whom stood for Westminster under the Conservatives and Unionists banner, left. A number of activists, including the chairman of the UUP's Lisburn Branch, also jumped ship, in protest at the suspension of veteran UUP member, John Lund, who is being punished for voicing public disapproval of the party leadership.
Ulster Unionists insist that there are always comings and goings within political parties. Hamilton, who polled well in Upper Bann, is the most significant of the recent batch of defections. The rest, considered individually, are manageable setbacks.
Taken together, though, the year long series of departures suggests a rudderless party, which sheds more personnel with each fresh lurch.
The UUP toyed with 'unionist unity' and lost Alex Kane, its director of communications. When it affirmed its pact with the Conservatives, Hermon and McFarland were thrown from deck. It then veered away from its commitment to normalised, national politics, scattering former candidates in its wake.
More than anything else the Ulster Unionists need to commit to a strategy and stick to it. If the ship can be steadied, there is still potential for a golden sky at the end of the seemingly endless storm.