UUP leadership interviews – Tom’s U-turn on engagement

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There’ll be a series of posts over the next day or so reflecting on Basil McCrea and Tom Elliott as they bid for the leadership of the UUP. Both candidates agreed to be interviewed on camera (videos now available) over the last few days and answered a fairly consistent set of questions to see how that would tease out their different personalities, policies and ideas for taking the UUP forwards.

They talked about their leadership pitches, the Tory link-up, changes inside the party, respect for leaders, unity following a divisive campaign as well as highlighting practical differences the wider community would notice as a result of their party leadership.

They also recalled the last election they’d lost, and what they’d do if Jeffrey Donaldson turned up on their door asking to come back into the UUP!

One of the unexpected moments of this campaign that grew into a continuing issue was Tom Elliott’s statement about attending GAA matches and Gay Pride events. In the Belfast Telegraph on 3 September, David Gordon wrote:

UU leadership contender Tom Elliott has told party members that he will not attend GAA games or gay pride parades. Mr Elliott made the comments while campaigning for the UUP’s top post.

He confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph: “I have indicated at party meetings that whilst some members of our party would go to gay pride marches or GAA matches, I wouldn’t go. That’s a personal issue, but I hold no issue with any of those who would.” He also stated: “It was just me saying that I never have and it’s certainly not my intention to go to any of them.”

Mr Elliott’s remarks will be widely regarded as a reference to his more liberal UUP leadership race opponent Basil McCrea.

Basil reacted. Tom reacted to Basil. A storm blew up.

A couple of days later, Tom Elliott closed a guest post over on Open Unionism with the statement:

On the campaign trail, I am learning that the members want the next leader to push himself beyond his personal comfort zone.

Interviewing Tom Elliot last night, I asked him whether his recent discovery about leadership and his personal comfort zone included “overcoming your disinterest or moral objection to attending GAA matches and Gay Pride”? He explained:

[Elliott] Clearly there are parts of this community that I still have not been in contact with or touched. And I think I want to reach out to those people and say “Look, I want your views as well, I want to hear what the issues are that you have”. I may not be able to resolve them all, but what I do is I want to make a collective decision on what issues I need to proceed with.

Asked if there were no areas of society or culture that he was against, or was against engaging with, he said:

[Elliott] Not at all. I presently engage with all cultures and societies in Northern Ireland. I have absolutely no issue with that and will have no issue of doing it in future.

I pressed him whether he’d have any issues with Irish-medium cultural events and schools, meeting paramilitaries or funerals. Tom smiled at my suggestion that as an Anglican he might have a problem attending a funeral in a Methodist church.

[Elliott] I think that clearly you have to make a decision on every opportunity when it arises, on every event as it arises. And I will certainly do that. But what I can tell you, I will do it with the positive aspects in mind, not with the negatives. I will see where there are opportunities in each one of those events or invitations and I will certainly deal with them on that basis.

It feels like a complete U-turn from his original conservative reservations (“it’s certainly not my intention to go to any of them”) to adopt a pragmatic approach to weigh up each invitation as it arrives (“I will see where there are opportunities in each one of those events”).

For balance and completeness, during his interview Basil McCrea spoke of the UUP becoming “positive and progressive and modern and pluralist and all of those issues about reaching out to different folk” and also threw in the adjectives “open” and “transparent”. He said that the UUP should be “a political party trying to make a good Northern Ireland for all of the people”.

(And before slug gets his first comment in, I should add that as someone who’s neither a member of the UUP nor any other party, I’ve no selfish interest in who wins.)

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  • slug

    Alan – glad to see you declaring your interest – or in this case disinterest. I hope others will follow these high standards in the world of blogging.

  • I knew you’d still get the first comment

  • randomjoe

    Lets be Honest Fermanagh has over a quarter of the voteing members in the UUP , its hard to see how tom can lose . If he polls anything below 60% its a total disaster for him.

    Basil is what the UUP needs but sadly the numbers are against him.

    on a brighter note Basil is winning the public poll on the open unionionism blog 2 to 1.

    Hes on 68.42% against Toms 31.58% . The Publics backing Basil

  • Mick Fealty

    That stacking of the numbers in Fermanagh though tells us something about where the current state of the party.

    There may be more voters in the east, but a comparison with constituency associations numbers back there reflect two things I suspect: the battle with the DUP has been lost there in a way it still hasn’t in Fermanagh; and there is more activist committment to the party.

    Whoever wins will need to build the party back up from the ground up…

  • Drumlin Rock

    Beat me to it, and I will declare loads of interest, as a UUP member and supporter of Tom Elliott, but speaking entirely on my own behalf, havnt views alans interivews yet, should be interesting.
    With regards the general debate I attended the Upper Bann event last night, both candidates spoke and then answered questions, objectively I would say that Tom gave the much better speech, whilst Basil answered the questions well.
    The common ground both candidates occupy was the main feature, with the main difference often being Basil drawing a clear line, ie. no ministry for him, whilst Tom felt is is better to leave options open.
    The personal clashes of last week have been firmly laid to rest and it appears will remain that way.

  • Drumlin Rock

    joe, on-line polls are as reliable as North Korean elections, as for the Fermanagh vote, yes membership is high, but they are being strongly discriminated against in this election, ie. a young mother will need to arrange childcare from 4pm until probably 1 or 2 am as opposed to an East belfast mum where 2 hours would probably do it, understandably the proportion of members from Fermanagh may be effected.
    maybe he can pass this on to other areas!

  • Progressive Unionist

    Difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at Tom’s tortured phraseology as he slowly wakes up to the fact that party leaders in the UK of 2010 can’t just ignore minorities (like the gay community or GAA enthusiasts)…

    Tom was asked in his webchat today what he would do to bring back these lost voters – he just refused to answer the question and instead talked about appealing to ‘traditional Unionists’.

    The problem for the UUP is – as Mick alludes to above – that their membership base is far, far to the right even of their existing voters (most voters in the east, most members in the west), let alone to their potential moderate voters.

    Yet the UUP can’t win over new centre-ground voters unless they have a new centre-ground leader, but they may not be able to elect a new centre-ground leader unless they attract new centre-ground members, but they can’t attract new centre-ground members without electing a centre-ground leader. It’s chicken and egg, catch 22. Depressing…

    Basil’s the only guy who can break out of this cycle – the UUP really are in the last chance saloon, and Basil’s the only candidate with a plan to bring back all the voters lost to Alliance (and all the stay-at-home moderates).

    If Tom wins then thousands of moderate Unionists will be faced with an impossible choice between two right-wing, traditionalist parties. Many will opt to either vote Alliance or stay at home – that will have predictable consequences next May…

  • Progressive Unionist

    Tom was asked in his webchat today what he would do to bring back these lost voters – sorry, by ‘these lost voters’ i was referring to all the voters lost to Alliance. That’ll teach me not to hit the ‘submit comment’ button without editing first!

    Tom’s webchat answer was:

    [Comment From John]
    Tom, by far the biggest problem the UUP faces is the number of voters we have lost to the resurgent Alliance Party in recent years. What are you going to do to win these liberal voters back to the UUP?

    Tom: It is not only the Alliance Party that we have to contest. There is a large number of traditional Unionist votes that we must win. We are fighting all other parties, not just one.

  • Seymour Major

    “We are fighting all other parties, not just one”

    If only that was true.

  • Drumlin Rock

    lets try some reality, the UUP vote has basically halfed, where have those voters gone?
    Answer, mainly to the DUP. others stay at home, and a small proportion to Alliance. Also the “stay at home” voters are as likely to be “die hard loyalist” as they are to be “moderates”.
    The UUP as with any centre party has always to fight on two fronts, at present the biggest gains but also main risk is from the right, ie DUP & TUV, it needs the most focus but the left front also needs to be strengthened.

  • slug

    I think this is good. These debates are a very good thing for whoever wins. Its important that whoever wins feels that their views were debated and tested at time of election, it adds to their authority when they do take over. I like both candidates even though I would be more of a Basil person in terms of my politics.

  • slug

    Though I prefer Basil, lets be fair – Tom as far as I can see is a reasonably “moderate” person. He was a pro-GFA unionist from what I am told. (Though that does not mean he liked all parts of it).

    The issue of him being politically right of centre is not a problem for me either. That seems to be the tradition of the UUP with its linkages to the Conservatives. A conservative centre right pro business ideology is surely is surely something that unites most of the UUP voters and membership.

    The problem I have is not whether he is right wing but the extent to which he projects a modern civic unionism versus a communalist type of unionism. He is not as good as Basil from this point of view. And he has got off to a bad start with the GAA and gay comments. And I didn’t like his pacts initiatives in Fermanagh. But it may be that these have been over played and he is more civic than these suggest.

  • Hopping the Border

    Did tom not suggest building a fence along the border and de-constructing the border bridges (the literal ones I mean)?

  • Hopping the Border

    Meant to add – hardly the progressive attitude of a moderniser!

  • Progressive Unionist

    Reality:

    South Belfast:

    UUP 2003: 27%
    AP 2003: 6%

    UUP 2010: 17%
    AP 2010: 15%

    East Belfast:

    UUP 2003: 33%
    AP 2003: 9%

    UUP 2010: 21%
    AP 2010: 37% (!)

  • Progressive Unionist

    The reality is the UUP, under Reg, was seen to retreat further and further into dead-end, “traditionalist” unionism.

    Tom as leader would just mean the UUP retreats even further away from the centre-ground. It would leave many tens of thousands of potential UUP voters with no other option than to vote Alliance or Greens. This will have disastrous consequences next May.

    The UUP under Reg, and still less under Tom, simply doesn’t reflect the reality of Northern Ireland and the UK in 2010 – Tom’s comments on the GAA and gay rights just underlined this fact.

    The UUP needs to put forward a positive, inclusive, forward-looking vision for the future of Northern Ireland – a Shared Future within the Union.

  • slug

    Just to add to my comment , I gather that he was supportive of Trimble and party policy through the period when the anti-GFA gang Donaldson et al were challenging and this too should reassure people.

  • Seymour Major

    I read Mr Elliots comments on the Newsletter online chat at lunchtime. He was certainly primed for the loaded questions which touched upon sectarianism.

    He made light of the Pope’s visit to Britain commenting that he respected an invitation by the Queen and jokingly pointing out that William of Orange’s campaign was supported by the then Pope.

    When asked about appealing to Catholics, he suggested that the UUP would be open to people of every religion. Unfortunately, he made the qualification
    “provided they respect UUPs values etc. ”

    Whilst the qualification phrase would normally be regarded as innocuous, it lends itself to the inference that Protestantism is to remain one of its values.

    I’m sorry if that sounds cynical but if he wants to clear the air on that, he must go an extra mile.

  • Drumlin Rock

    no, he objected on behalf of residents of a couple of small country lanes who believed the road could not cope with the increased traffic if the cross border roads were re opened

  • Peter Brown

    I thought there were 18 constituencies and for the S Belfast result

    DUP 2003 12.7%
    2010 23.7%

    NI

    2003

    Alliance 3.7%
    UUP 22.7%

    2010

    Alliance 6.3%
    UUP 15.2%

    Worst example of selective reporting ever?

    Typical Basil tactic of smoke and mirrors – if the UUP vote has halved since The Agreement and the Alliance vote has gone up by a fraction but the DUP vote has nearly doubled it shouldn’t need a PhD in politics to work out where the UUP votes have gone!

    Tom is right when he says the UUP need to get traditional unionists back from the DUP!

  • Hopping the Border

    I stand corrected DR!

  • Drumlin Rock – You probably passed me on the way in last night as I was hanging around waiting for Tom to arrive. Was the format the each spoke and answered questions, but without the other candidate in the room? Was there any shared questioning?

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    “t feels like a complete U-turn from his original conservative reservations ”

    Eh No – it sounds more like either

    a) damage dimitiation and fudge after having his arse chewed

    or

    b) deliberately geting his prejudices out in the open to reassure the hardliners and then issuing a half baked qualification.

    The UUP, based on their last public position are an anti-agreement party having trtied to veto the transfer of Police and Justice and sink the STA simple because the DUP were a party to it – and that in definace of their own half-party the Tories and the American, British and Irish governments – and electing Tommo will surely signal more of the same with the collpaps on progress in the parading issue a chance for him to out-Orange the DUP.

    How embarassing for ordinary-decent-secular-Prods that they will have to choose between 3 parties who champion and support an organsiation like the Orange Order who contribute direclty to community division.

  • But should people seeking to lead what is still a major local political party have big gaps in their community engagement “Clearly there are parts of this community that I still have not been in contact with or touched.”

    though he does then go on to say “I presently engage with all cultures and societies in Northern Ireland” which contradicts his statement 30 seconds previously.

    (Really glad no one picks the things I say apart in such detail!)

  • Drumlin Rock

    Alan, I was a bit late so they were just about to start, might have flew past! there was a joint question time for over an hour at the end, it went well and as I said the the differences were more in how policy was delivered than in actual policy, it was a posative meeting on the whole.

  • Drumlin Rock

    Also go back an election or two and Alliance have slipped considerably in percentages, even in East Belfast they were not that far above previous percentages.

  • Peter Brown

    And yet PU (presumably he wants to take up the mantle of the PUP when it folds) has gone strangely quiet – presumably preparing the soft questions on the Newsletter webchat for Basil to stifle the harder ones like which way is the wind blowing today so that we know which way you are leaning on any given issue?

  • slug

    Peter – let us not be catty.

  • Progressive Unionist

    Peter – I didn’t claim those two constituencies were representative of the whole of NI, but they do highlight the very serious problem faced by the UUP in Belfast, and the constituencies around Belfast.

    In 2007 constituency after constituency showed a big drop in UUP support and a corresponding increase in AP support. That trend will only continue if the UUP goes down a ‘traditionalist’, west-of-the-Bann route.

    There’s also the point that the three Unionist parties, plus Lady Hermon, plus Rodney Connor put together only amounted to 50.4% at the 2010 election.

    How low would that razor-thin combined Unionist majority of 50.4% have to go before you started to question the wisdom of driving progressive pro-Union voters into the arms of Alliance?

    Would it not be wiser to have one Unionist party looking after the traditional unionists and another looking after the progressive/civic unionists? (It may also – counterintuitively – lead to greater co-operation between UUP and DUP as they wouldn’t be squabbling so much over the same declining pool of voters.)

  • Peter Brown

    PU

    You described it as reality – it is reality only in 2 seats by comparing two carefully hand picked election results, therefore not reality but spin.

    I assumed that the implication was that traditional UUP voters were leaving the UUP for Alliance in droves when the truth of the matter is that the vast majority if former UUP supporters who left now vote DUP not Alliance.

    If a tiny minority of UUP members in 2 Belfast constituencies want to try to do what the DUP did to the UUP by becoming Alliance in drag then by all means elect Basil as leader as Tom couldn;t pull that off with that accent.

    Bear in mind however that Alliance held off challenges in both those constituencies from pseudo Alliance UUP candidates in 2010 and you are effectively abandoning the other 16 constituencies where that will go down like a lead party as the Alliance Party already does….

    I have posted here before about the mentality of some in the UUP that everything outside Belfast is culchie and outside the Pale – if Basil and his supporters want to champion the position that the UUP needs to completely abandon everything outside Belfast and the neighboruing constituencies then go right ahead and condemn the party that in 1997 elected 10 MPs to the political wilderness.

    There already is a party for civic unionism – the Alliance Party and if garden centre prods won’t vote Alliance why would they vote for the UUP pretending to be Alliance?

    In the 2007 Assembly elections the Alliance polled just 36,000 votes increasing it share by 1 1/2%, the UUP lost nearly 8% of its vote (nearly 50,000 votes and nearly double the number of votes the Alliance polled in total – at best Alliance accounted for 1/7 of the UUP losses….)

    Reality – maybe in the fantasy worlds of East and South Belfast – everywhere else it is pure fantasy!