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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