UUP: facing reality at last

Alex Kane is relatively upbeat about his party’s prospects after its first racour free Conference for years, and an admittance from its Chair that it has been punching below its weight. He also thinks that DUP will prefer to do a deal on the return of Stormont in advance of next year’s Assembly elections!By Alex Kane

The Ulster Unionist conference went much better than many people had predicted. Numbers were up on last year and there was a much more convivial atmosphere. David Burnside’s lonely walkout had the impact of a snowflake landing on a roasting Aga. It’s not so much a case of the party regarding him as a dissident, as that it’s entirely indifferent to him. He has no power base and poses no threat.

The most interesting speech of the day was from Party Chairman, James Cooper. He acknowledged that the party had had “a difficult year,” admitted that the media wing was undermanned and underfunded, accepted that election campaigns had been fought almost on the hoof, that election results had been poor and that the party had “punched below our weight.”

I use the word interesting, for this is the first time that a senior member of the leadership team has, in public, (the press was present for his speech) owned up to the scale of the problems that the party has faced. This column has devoted many, many words, to these same problems over the past year, and been rebuked in Cunningham House for so doing. It is good to know, at long last, that the party is ready to drop the pretence and face reality.

I have never doubted either the willingness or the ability of the UUP to get back on its feet and continue fighting for its core beliefs. There is a huge, untapped pool of pro-Union support, which can be won over to the party if it is reached out to and presented with policies which have a direct impact on everyday life for everyday unionists.

The party has won the constitutional battle and secured the Union. It’s legacy is firm. It made the right decisions and never lacked political courage. It must now stop worrying about the DUP and, instead, get on with the business of making itself a modern and fully effective political and election machine.

And, talking about the DUP, how will they handle their first deal-breaking test? Will they sign up to the British/Irish proposals within the next few days, or hang tough and see if they can squeeze a little more? I have always taken the view that the DUP would do a deal with Sinn Fein, and I also believe that they would rather do it this side of the local and general elections.

There is, of course, the limit-the-risks option, in which the DUP would continue to play hardball, hope to increase their lead at the next elections and then do a deal – knowing that there would then be at least two years before the next election. But there is a danger in that option. We know that the next elections (definitely for local government) will take place next May, eighteen months after an Assembly election in which the DUP had promised a “Fairer Deal.” What, exactly, would the DUP say on the doorsteps? “Look, we haven’t delivered the deal yet, but it’s all Trimble’s fault, so give us another few months of salaries for doing nothing.”

No, I suspect that the DUP would love to enter an election, asking people to endorse the deal and increase their mandate. From what I have seen, and conversations I have had with both sides, I think we are now looking at a deal sooner rather than later.

If that is the case, then the UUP will have to prepare itself for an extraordinarily difficult election. But, as it proved in Wednesday’s by-election in Larne, if it picks the right candidate and campaigns hard, it can still beat a triumphalist DUP.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 20th November 2004