In a break from tradition, the Ulster Unionist Party is following the example of Barcamp and organising this weekend’s conference as an un-conference. Delegates will register as normal and pick up their name badges on the way into the Ramada Hotel, but may be surprised to be given a pad of post-it notes and a pen too.
During the short welcome session, party chairman David Campbell will encourage delegates to propose sessions based on policy areas or common constituency issues by scribbling the session name on a post it and sticking it on a large poster at the front of the main hall. After some quick de-duplication and scheduling, MLAs will help facilitate and act as note takers in the delegate-driven sessions, but will not chair or lead the discussions.
In a further break from tradition, other than some brief opening remarks and messages of thanks, Tom Elliott’s leader’s speech will be written on the day by UUP conference attendees. Once again, delegates’ post-it pads will be used to capture their suggested sentences … and paragraphs – if any delegate’s writing is sufficiently spindly. A series of headings for sections of the speech will be provided in advance to form a framework and ensure that the novel creative process leads to a coherent speech. Party HQ workers will then sort and assemble the speech fragments into a sensible and compelling order and the new leader will première the party’s leader’s address as part of the BBC’s live coverage of the event at 12.40pm on BBC Two NI.
A spokesperson for the UUP said that their “innovative conference would prove once and for all that the UUP was a visionary party, that recognised the continual need for change and capable of engaging its mature membership along with its modernising plans”. He added that it might demonstrate to cynics that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the UUP’s actual conference agenda has been published. The morning sessions will be dominated by policing and the economy. Basil McCrea – member of the NI Policing Board and party spokesperson on policing – will be in discussion with a special guest, assumed to be a senior PSNI figure. No doubt an opportunity for Basil to clarify his (mis-)reported comments about dissident capability versus capacity.
The second big session debates a motion that “believes that the power to reduce Corporation Tax should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly” as well as reaffirming that being part of the UK is good for the local economy. David McNarry, Leslie Cree and Danny Kennedy are down to speak in the sponsored debate.
Firmly into the part of conference that overlaps with the TV coverage, the UUP’s women’s development officer Sandra Overend has a five minute slot before Health Minister Michael McGimpsey addresses the delegates. Then John McCallister, the new deputy leader will introduce the May 2011 election candidates (except for Foyle).
Tom Elliott makes his keynote speech at 12.40. While his twenty minute window is noticeably shorter than the 30-40 minute windows occupied by the SDLP and DUP leaders, it may be a better use of the TV time. Peter Robinson’s looooong speech took up half the 75 programme and Arlene Foster didn’t get up onto the stage until the afternoon. The UUP’s agenda makes sure that their two ministers, media-friendly Basil, as well as the new leader all get the chance to say something memorable and make it onto the running order. Of course, this strategy relies on people watching and the content being compelling.
The afternoon is dominated by a 90-minute Shared Future panel, a presentation from MEP Jim Nicholson about Haiti, and business will close shortly before 4pm.
Things to look out for:
While education may get a mention in the Shared Future panel, it hasn’t been given a session of its own. (Saturday is the third and last morning that some children will be sitting their AQE “transfer” test.)
It’s not a surprise that former leader Lord (Reg) Empey is not on the programme and I’d expect that he’ll keep a dignified but low profile at the conference on Saturday. But expect much praise for his leadership in Tom Elliott’s speech.
What will attendance be like? Will the new leader be a draw, or will the recent trip to vote in person in the Waterfront Hall have drained the batteries of the UUP membership. (The bad weather won’t make the bus run up from Fermanagh very appealing.)
The UUP’s gender balance is a recurring issue. Expect to see most of the female Assembly candidates getting a chance to speak from the stage at some point during the day. Expect to hear of strengthened plans to encourage female participation at a grass-roots and council level. It’ll be interesting to see how many of the council election candidates can be described as “old and male”.
SDLP and DUP party leaders’ conference speeches have made a big deal of their “number one priorities”. Will Tom Elliott choose wisely when it comes to listing his priorities?
The DUP have been accused of a secular shift at their recent conference, removing much of the religious rhetoric and fervour from their debates and talks. Will the UUP change its tone and distance itself from their persistent Orange roots?
However, the main shadow hanging over the UUP conference will be that of the DUP. Increasingly centrist in their policies and appeal – with Peter Robinson even trying out some rhetoric last weekend looking for votes beyond the unionist community – the UUP is being squeezed. Coming from a position of weakness (low number of MLAs, lacking in confidence) can the UUP express believable optimism at their conference?
Can they avoid “more of the same” and articulate their fresh bid to retain and attract voters who may otherwise throw their hat in with the DUP or Alliance? And can the main conference speakers get the balance right between dissing other parties and promoting their own policies and achievements?
In a Newsletter column this week that didn’t hold back, Liam Clarke explained:
… [Peter Robinson] Since then he has had further reverses which must have taken an emotional toll, for instance losing his seat, but has learnt to handle them with an increasing grace and confidence in public. Despite a hellish couple of years he now looks like a leader – self-assured, upbeat and urbane.
In contrast, the UUP is drifting into the election looking and sounding like Dad’s Army. Tom Elliott, a man of palpable decency and common sense, has got himself into an unnecessary spin over the GAA and has ended up looking weak and indecisive.
The main news about the UUP since he took the helm has been who is leaving it. That is the price of vacillation under pressure.
Like Robinson he has the ability to reverse this situation, but if he keeps taking the advice that has guided him thus far then he risks being eaten alive in May