Belfast Telegraph

Who can lead the UUP back into the front line of politics?

By Liam Clarke

The UUP is faced with a choice in the current leadership battle, which, although it may be clear, is not easy or pleasant.

Any of the three paths on offer may lead to the loss of members and decline. This is a battle for the party’s soul.

Bill White of LucidTalk polling analysed the party’s performance and prospects for the Belfast Telegraph.

A former party member himself, he sums up their problems by saying: “The UUP’s vote is spread across the province and it is declining rapidly, particularly in the east.”

In many constituencies the party is picking up the last seat. It is vulnerable to a shift in voting intentions or to a reduction to Assembly seats.

This loosening grip has left the party, which ran Northern Ireland for most of its history and was held together by power, casting around for solutions.

In its heyday the UUP was the party of the Union. Later it became, with the SDLP, a party of the peace process.

Since then it has struggled to define a new role for itself and support has drifted away.

It has flirted with the Tories, the DUP, and the SDLP and before that the PUP as it sought allies to halt its decline. At each stage it has lost members.

The three likely candidates for the leadership present three distinct visions for its future.

The strong favourite to win is Danny Kennedy, the minster for Regional Development.

He is a “steady as she goes” figure who would build better relations with the DUP and already attends their ministerial group. Mr Kennedy has performed well in government and gets on well with people.

Besides that he commands powerful blocks of support.

A majority of his Assembly colleagues back him and are likely to come out in his favour.

He is a member of the Orange Order, another influential group likely to support him but has also shown a liberal face, for instance attending the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr.

He has the support of the unionist peers. Lord Maginnis is likely to swing most of Tyrone, possibly Fermanagh too, behind the Kennedy bandwagon.

The logic of building bridges to the DUP is obvious. Pooled unionist votes could save UUP seats at the next election. Anyway, Peter Robinson argued, that the DUP’s move to the centre ground makes the difference between the two parties a matter more of style than substance.

“I predict Danny will win by 120 to 130 votes and he will have my support,” says David McNarry, who resigned the Assembly whip after being disciplined for making the DUP talks public.

Under a Kennedy leadership such contacts would continue and would be more open and transparent; the difference between the two parties might blur as the wagons of unionist unity circled. It is widely believed that if elected he will retain the ministry. Party sources turned down offers by MLA Mike Nesbitt to form a “dream ticket”.

That would have meant Mr Nesbitt, a former journalist and broadcaster, being a leader who built up the party organisation while Mr Kennedy held the ministry and led the team in the assembly.

Last night Mr Nesbitt declined to comment on the claims.

He is expected to declare his candidacy on Thursday.

“As I see it” he said, “the party is like a business and the profit is power gained at election time.”

He has a pragmatic approach to many issues other candidates consider matters of principle.

He would examine co-operation with the DUP closer to election time and would also look at the idea of going into opposition on a cost benefit analysis.

“There are a number of tests to be met before you could do that,” he said.

His immediate priority would be to build up better relations within the party and revamp the organisation.

“One problem is that we don’t know each other well enough” he said.

This is a pragmatic, managerial style and it is backed by younger members. He would represent a break with the past and a listening leadership.

The most daring choice of all is South Down MLA John McCallister, who makes no bones about leading the party into opposition, hopefully to rebuild its strength. He represents radical change and the chance of a new beginning.

These are real choices for the UUP and, as the party’s support declines, the stakes have never been higher.

Belfast Telegraph

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