Too many out for the count in UUP election
Doubts hang over the Ulster Unionist leadership battle as a row about who is eligible to vote in it inches towards the High Court. Liam Clarke reports
In barely a fortnight's time, UUP members plan to meet to elect a new leader by one member, one vote.
But will they make it? Already a question mark is hanging over the event as Ulster's oldest political party struggles with its perennial problem of internal disorganisation.
Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea, the two candidates, have got up close and personal over issues such as gay rights, the GAA and links with other parties, but they admit a common concern about the state of the membership lists.
The party is trying in vain to send out a message of unity and dynamism. The convention is not being held in some dusty Orange Hall or venerable unionist venue, but in the inspiring contemporary setting of Belfast's Waterfront Hall.
The venue is intended to signify modernity. Gone is the old federal organisation where delegates from individual associations, operating like semi- independent fiefdoms, and bodies such as the Orange Order met to a select a leader.
An anarchist's dream, Alban McGuinness dubbed that set up, but at least it worked. The odd mistake or ambiguity about the details of membership hardly mattered under a delegate system, but it does now where there is one member, one vote.
In the coming days, many of those invited to vote can expect letters of 'correction' telling them they aren't eligible at all. Those affected include people allowed to renew membership during an 'amnesty' last month.
Now Mark Cosgrove, the party treasurer and custodian of the membership lists, says they will no longer be allowed to vote because they have not been members for the requisite six months before September 22.
Cosgrove insists that talk of a "shambolic process" to elect the new leader has "no grounds in reality".
Yet within the party he expressed concern that membership dues and association levies were not reaching headquarters in time to meet the official deadlines for payment.
The minutes of the executive committee of the Ulster Unionist Council for November 28, 2009, show that Cosgrove "was concerned that appeals for payment were having a limited effect" and that "he did not want the party to end up on the front pages for all the wrong reasons".
Cosgrove was speaking just over a month before the December 31 deadline for payment of dues for 2010. Many did not make the due date, with the result that it was extended. The very last opportunity to squeeze onto the voting roll in time for this year's leadership election was meant to be March 22, when those admitted as 'new members' would just be eligible to cast a ballot for the new leader six months later on September 22. Yet the lists were again re-opened last month.
However, not all branches had sufficient notice to take advantage of the concession and now Cosgrove says that members who joined, or renewed, at that point may not be allowed to vote as they had hoped.
Both leadership contenders want the membership issue resolved in time for a valid election to be held. "This is the first time that we have held a one member, one vote election for party leader and it is absolutely imperative that those who are entitled to vote are able to vote and that those who are not entitled to vote are not able to vote," said Basil McCrea.
Sources say that McCrea, on the liberal wing of the party, has been in contact with headquarters asking to inspect the lists.
Fermanagh MLA Tom Elliott, current favourite in the race to replace Sir Reg Empey as leader, is also alive to the problem.
"There is something over the membership," he confirmed. "I have asked for clarification. There may be some confusion, I doubt there is anything deliberate in it."
There was certainly confusion in the case of Roy Garland, a veteran who quit the party in April in protest at its electoral alliance with the Tories.
A day later he received a handwritten note from Sir Reg regretfully accepting his resignation and thanking him for his long service to the unionist cause.
Yet on August 10 he received another letter, this time from David Campbell, the party chairman, inviting him to make a nomination for the new leader and come along to vote at the party convention. There are many theories about how this mess occurred, but the real explanation is probably more cock-up than conspiracy. As a hangover from Ulster Unionism's old federal structures, some members still paid dues in cash - often to local associations rather than to headquarters.
Membership was traditionally rolled over from one year to the next without too much red tape and it was often unclear what was a donation and what was a membership fee. The party card has no expiry date, so whether payment was made on time, or at all, can be open to argument.
Party documents reveal the uphill battle waged by officers to impose some order since the rule changes. In December 2007, Jim Wilson, the acting general secretary, warned constituency associations that "it has become crystal clear that party HQ is not in possession of either accurate or full membership information from branches throughout the party" and demanding them by the end of the month. Once that deadline passed party officers again wrote to associations, asking them to supply membership lists by February 22. In December 2008, the problem persisted, forcing Campbell to reprimand constituency associations who defied "our clear instructions" and "continued to collect membership locally".
He warned that "only those on our central list" by the end of January "will be deemed party members in good standing".
Some branches undertook to cover the dues of members drawing state pensions or social security benefits from branch funds, but such payments did not always reach headquarters.
Where does that leave the members who believed that their dues had been met? And what of those who are invited to vote, but could be turned away at the door?
It could all end up in court. One obvious possibility is an injunction to prevent the meeting taking place until the remaining uncertainties are resolved.