Interesting result in the UUP leadership race on Friday night. Reg Empey becomes only the thirteenth leader of the party in its centenary year. In the short term it’s probably a good result. Alan McFarland turned in an impressive 47% and took most, though not all, of the liberal vote. The good news for Empey is that they are also less likely to contest his victory, and knuckle under Reg’s leadership, in the short to medium term at least.According to the Irish Times on Saturday, the key intervention came when David Burnside
Mr Burnside asked each candidate in the event of the DUP entering into a power-sharing Northern Executive with Sinn Fein would he lead the Ulster Unionist Party into opposition. Mr McFarland and Mr McNarry told delegates that they wouldn’t adopt such a stance. Sir Reg however said he would consider such an option, earning muted applause. Sir Reg during his election campaign indicated that he would not share power with Sinn Féin should the IRA effectively disband in the coming months. He said that it could until the next Assembly elections, in such an eventuality, before he would be prepared to accept republican bona fides.
Astute enough. It communicated a hardline to the traditionalists when he needed it, and yet with a strong possibility that the DUP will insist on new Assembly elections before taking their executive seats, hardly binding in any practical sense.
Howwever, taking the loose affliation that is the UUP and turning it into a tight and disciplined is a mountain for anyone to climb. Few doubt the UU house is still divided. He will some time and grace to get it right. The conservatives within the party will feel they have taken back some of the ground they lost under Trimble. Then again, they thought they were buying a conservative when they got Trimble!
Can Empey keep them onside and at the same time create some forward momentum before what is likely to be a very tough Assembly election some time in the next one to two years?
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty