UUP Conference preview #uupconf

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


  • I think that everyone should read this post *twice* before they comment….

  • tolpuddlemartyr

    Hard to keep up with NI politics. Suspect it’s as corrupt as politics anywhere else?
    for ‘Corruption rules ok?’ see……… http://www.tolpuddlemartyr.blogspot.com

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    Any idea if the UUP has had a reply from the OO regarding the DUP’s claim (challenged by UUP) that the OO had been fully involved/briefed in the negotiations on the parades legislation.

    ..and if they have had a reply are they going to share it.

  • cynic47

    The post it slips idea all sounds like something suggested by a Kindergarden or some disturbed PR person. Tom Elliot is too conservative to take all this this frantic last minute stuff in his stride. His speech could end up like something from Sesame Street as he grapples with dozens of sticky pieces of paper rather than a slick teleprompter! Worth watching just for the chance of a major mishap.

  • Carson’s Cat

    I’ll be generous and put down your analysis of Tom’s 20 mins to natural generosity.

    I suspect however that Tom’s brief appearance may be down to the fact that he just doesn’t have anything to say.

    “good use of tv time” – so how does introducing 30 candidates in 10 minutes do that then? McCallister will have about 20 seconds per candidate which should be fun. He’ll sound like the voiceover man at the end of one of those insurance adverts reading out the small print. Which with McCallister’s rather uninteresting drawl should make for some fun.

    Still no-one noticed the problem if things don’t keep to time then? I’d love to see the Beeb switching the metaphorical lights off on Tom in the “prime” of his speech…..

  • Greenflag

    An un- conference for the un – party 😉 Peter Robinson must be having a hoot at the latest manifestation of ‘innovation’ coming from Dad’s Army . Will the voters of NI please please put these old duffers to sleep once and for all next May or I’ll have to make a call to the RSPCA 😉

  • Oracle

    They just don’t get it do they?

    Pens and post-it stickers for the delegates is all fine and well and while not radical is a step sideways from the norm.

    But the delegates are always going to vote UUP, if you’re going to be arsed getting up early in the Fermanagh permafrost to milk cows, set up the shop, pack off the kids to a baby sitter then race home to shave, shit and shower before clambering on to a rattling old jalopy for a two hour journey in icy conditions to spend all day in the Ramada hotel listening to one non-entity after another ramble about future opportunities……. then I’d say it was a safe bet the same person would pop into the local primary school beside them to vote in an election.

    It’s the voters who have to have input, it is they who should be given note paper and pencils to mark out what they want to see in a party, if you make them included, if you make them the ring masters then you make them voters and party faithfuls

  • Anon

    Ah yes, the one picture of Tom with women: almost makes up for the miserable 5 minutes women in politics gets on the agenda.

  • Post It Note Idea Walls are political innovation?


  • Carson’s Cat – Well, there had to be some “bright side” to the all too obvious “nothing to say” comment that could be levelled. Relatively little of the conference business is ever broadcast live – except for the leader’s speech – but by having the candidates all up on stage, they’re more likely to get a 30 second clip of them milling around while a politician in the mini studio talks about their “fantastic line-up of progressive candidates” … Shorter talk = longer interviews with more candidates.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit – No idea – but I naively thought that my having McCausland, Donaldson and Moutray, along with Mervyn Gibson on the parades working group meant that the OO were on the inside track all along.

  • Paul – Reading posts before commenting isn’t normal for all commenters …

  • Cynic

    A final sign of desperation – they have got a consultant in!

  • Rocketeer

    I may be a slow thinker but my first reaction to your post Alan was: is this serious? If so, then I truly fear for the Ulster Unionist Party not to mention, on a lighter note, what a conversation between Tom Elliott and John McCallister would be like! Tom Elliott’s foolish attack upon the Democratic Unionist Party in the Belfast Telegraph following the DUP conference, and John McCallister’s bemoaning of the ‘slick’ and professional DUP conference leaflets and broadcast do little to encourage me that either men know how to develop the party or play upon party political advantage: there just seems to be no real articulation of a strategy or a purpose. I think that, perhaps Elliott has little to fear from the DUP because the UUP are quite capable to continue to destroy themselves without any helping hand from Peter Robinson.

    In regards to the Democratic Unionist Party Conference Alan, can I ask what the general and genuine vibes were like for Peter Robinson amongst the delegates and also what people made of the absence of the Paisleys, do you think that it was a deliberate snub not to attend Robinson’s speech?

  • “The post it slips idea all sounds like something suggested by a Kindergarden or some disturbed PR person”

    Absolutely. They should have gone the whole hog and brought in the Social workers with the anatomical dolls.

  • Carson’s Cat

    Re the “nothing to say issue” – in my experience the most obvious answer is quite often the correct one.

    In the UUP’s case that such a depth of thinking would be displayed is highly unlikely. Here’s my view why:

    1) If they don’t stick to time then Tom’s gonna get guillotined by the BBC – they have an end time and they’ll stick to it even if that means cutting the great man off in his prime.

    2) As has been pointed out repeatedly, their candidate line-up isn’t exactly all that different to what’s gone before. Yes they’re milking Billy Armstrong’s daughter (pardon the agricultural pun Billy) for all she’s worth, but she and yer woman from East Londonderry can only paper over the cracks so much.

    3) If they wanted all the fresh & friendly interviews then Tom’s speech should have been at the *beginning* or at least much earlier on during the BBC coverage. That way, not only do they avoid the timing issues but the candidates can then all go on and rave about how wonderful Tom’s eloquence was. As it is, the best they’ll get is a few seconds round-up afterwards.

    Anyway – come Saturday we’ll all know for sure. However, going by the statements this week and the amount of ranting against the DUP for daring to produce “slick broadcasts” (for that read professional), I’d imagine their conference will be more of the same. Lots of ranting and gnashing of teeth about why the electorate have had the nerve to desert them, and not an ounce of vision or strategy.

    Trouble is, its going to be like one of those 50’s B-movies – so bad it might just be compulsive viewing. Sky+ it is then…

  • drumlins rock

    Alan, I’m a bit surprised at who all has fallen for your bluff and not read the article properly, will be hard to take them serious from now on!

  • james

    OK not sure its a party conference thing, or maybe shouldn’t take up that amount of the conference but its brave for any party to wing it like that, its unlikely any other party in the UK or Ireland would have the balls to do it, however by forewarning people it does give a huge opportunity to hijack it!!

    Not a fan of Tom’s can’t believe its his idea of fun, but I like it

  • Rocketeer

    At least I sat on the fence and expressed some doubt…lol!

  • Rocketeer – They seemed genuinely positive towards Peter Robinson – hard to see any scowling faces with all the flag waving and applause. But the crowd was with him all the way. Regarding the Paisleys’s (senior) non-appearance. I didn’t hear anyone comment on it. He wasn’t on the agenda to take part in any panels (though Ian Jnr did participate).

    But as Sam McBride said in the Newsletter:

    > ‘It was telling that one DUP aide quietly suggested to the News Letter that the party founder’s absence could be seen as a “positive” statement.’

  • Linklater

    Spare a thought for Tom Elliott who is likely to formally end his failing Party’s links with the Conservatives on Saturday at his conference. He is telling David Cameron where to go – and believe me Cameron doesn’t like it!

    Having angrily dismissed Cameron’s idea of a merger Tom has in recent days been spelled out that he wants a return to traditional so called unionism.

    Tom has spelt out to the Belfast Telegraph that he hopes that national politics NEVER comes to NI. He wants NI kept in isolation with the UUP continuing to exist separate from the UK mainstream. Despite being repeatedly told by the PM that he, David Cameron, was determined to bring NI into mainstream politics.

    And no it was never envisaged that NI would be brought into mainstream politics by the building up the UUP. And it was never promised the Conservatives would ‘stand aside’ for the UUP in any election. Cameron and the Conservatives will never sign up for making NI settle for a detached status and tribal unionism. The UUP were offered the chance to change NI politics and help secure NIs place in the Union but they have chosen to try to shore up the UUP instead

    Tom firmly asserts the Conservatives will never get a foothold and he is free to continue to assert his anti British anti union agenda.
    But a politics built upon the Union Arch is doomed to failure.

    Tom will talk up notions of a ‘continuing relationship’ with the Conservatives but this is a smoke screen to cover the fact that Tom has chosen Ulster parochialism over British politics.

    Tom boasts they have 50 councillors, 17 MLAs, etc – but neglects to mention that on the UUP balance sheet sits ‘one pissed off Prime Minister’.

  • Alan, I’m a bit surprised at who all has fallen for your bluff

    I dont think it is fair to say that they did fall for it Drumlin. The spoof was enjoyable fiction but was also a fitting caricature showing how far the UUP has fallen as a credible political force.

    Part of the UUP’s problem is that they do not have any politicians with sufficient talent to make the party look and sound interesting.

    However, I will read the speeches reported in the paper tomorrow. If there is a spark of positivity in anything that was said, I will gladly support it.

  • skyblue

    Will be interesting to see if Sandra Overend will mention how she was allowed a free run in Mid Ulster just because the UUP couldn’t be seen not to select their Women’s Development officer. Will Joanne Dobson and Lesley McCauley be able to keep a straight face when they tell the conference that they were selected on merit and not because they are women.

  • pia_lugum

    The erstwhile ‘Dame Dehra Parker’ wannabe, Sandra Overend is show her obvious pride at being ‘selected’ in Mid-Ulster. What she won’t be too anxious to divulge is the fact that she only won through by a number of votes that was less than half of the number of family members and the bould Billy’s office staffers present at the so-called selection meeting. Work out the arithmetic and then add the fact that more than one experienced local councillor walked off in disgust. Clearly something continues to stink in Mid-Ulster. But why is it always hushed up by all the party leaders – from Trimble to Elliot?
    Maybe the delegates or the leader will ask a few serious questions on Saturday about these shennanigans that go for democracy in today’s UUP. Or maybe they will just allow the UUP to slip a bit further down the slippery slope ……..

  • D

    just heard Tom Elliott on hearts and minds refer to Sinn Fein/DUP. Ironic after years of SF/IRA. About time.

  • Nunoftheabove

    This must surely now be the most inept political organization on these islands. Even when they try to push something through which in their terms seems progressive (re. women candidates – whatever next, men pouring their own tea ?) it does so in such a breathtakingly semi-embarassed, ham-fisted way that all impact is lost and they look even more stupid than they did to begin with. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this party is moribund and we should all enjoy, as a deliverance, its dissolution when the moment does come given its unlovely history and ongoing (and if anything increasingly obvious) pointlessness.

  • ModerateUnionist

    It really doesn’t matter whats said at the party conference the party is finished and we have brought about our own destruction.
    The fact that the party is full of self serving individuals whose sole purpose is to protect their own privalged little positions of power with no regard for whats best for the party.
    This is a party so corrupt that these same individuals pack Constituancy Associations with family members and close friends, often paying there membership fees to ensure selection regardless of ability or lack there off.
    These token members have no other purpose than to corrupt the results, the play no other function in the party, they do not canvass for votes and in some cases I doubt if they are even Unionists.
    Until the UUP takes selection out of the hands of the associations then they will continue to be the longest running joke in politics.
    One only has to look at the UUP benches up at Stormont to see what the party has become. Our party had a chance to get on the front foot with a progressive leader in Basil McCrea but instead the Turkeys voted yet again for Christmas and we ended up with the Bog farmer Elliott!
    can the last one out of the Ramada on Saturday please turn out the lights?

  • Biggest Baddest Bobby


    David Cameron was also “determined” to bring the World Cup to England!

    Just because he’s “determined”, doesn’t mean it’ll happen!

    And for reference the Conservatives did offer to stand aside for the UUP. Indeed, that is formally still the position.

    The fact that NI Tories spend all their time on blogs instead of out where it counts meeting real people to get real votes is just evidence that it makes no real difference either way.

  • Carson’s Cat

    Hmmmmm… now about those “warm & friendly” conference interviews.


    Tom might be happy not to get near the BBC tomorrow..

  • ModerateUnionist

    I see Harry Hamilton is the latest liberal UUP member to leave the party, good job Tom and keep up the good work!

  • Johnny Boy

    Caught the UUP party political broadcast last night; Tom Elliott is certainly drenched in charisma.


    Moderate Unionism is being left without a voice, They have the choice between believing the lies and spin of the DUP or the complete incompetance of the UUP ‘Leadership’ and I use that terms loosely as they have displayed a complete lack of it for the last 10 years!
    No wonder Alliance have put their membership fees up by £10 for next year, their membership office must be flooded with applications as the Liberal half of our once great party jump from this sinking ship!
    Meanwhile Tom “Captain Smith” Elliott steams full ahead towards the iceberg that is the next Assembley Election.
    Elliotts record since his lofty rise, the decision not to go to a GAA match, numerous Liberal party members left and a decision to concentrate on good old fashioned Unionism, because that worked so well for his predecessors!

  • Jean Meslier

    The Ulster Unionist project of obtaining an MP by default resulted in a still-born pup due to 4 FST nationalists flying home from England to vote last May.
    The UUP reaction was to withdraw back into the Laager and promote Tom Elliot.

    Re: John McAllister.
    I met him and Basil McCrea at the opening of the new stand in Pairc Esler, Iur Chinn Tra
    a couple of years ago.
    After getting over his unortodox style of verbal communication I found him very affable and modernist in approach.

  • john greene

    For years now the UUP’s accountants have qualified their accounts. They did so because of their uncertainty that the Party was a going concern. This was they said because they were heavily relaint on three financial streams – Membership (in decline)
    – Assembly allownances (steady for now)
    – Banks providing credit (based on a now grossly inflated asset namely Cunningham House)
    The accountants is any one of these was to stop the Party would be insovent because it has such huge loans

    Is Flash Harry going to tip the UUP’s accountants and bankers over the edge?

  • john

    Well done Harry although its been pretty obvious he would leave after he was rejected by his colleagues for Upper Bann MLA. I hope he does switch to the Alliance party. I know some people dont want the Alliance to become too Unionist with ex UUP members but I think Harry would be a real asset – Northern Irish politics needs more people like him.
    I think skugger should set up a sweep stake for the next UUP member to jump ship although they better do it quickly as the next one will be gone in a couple of weeks at the current rate. Mcrea or Mcallister anyone?

  • John Greene

    Think people are mad if they think Harry will join alliance!

  • John K Lund

    I am currently suspended from the UUP. I have been subjected to what some people might consider a Kangaroo Court which was devoid of any chimera of natural justice. I will be resigning from this party forthwith. The history of this woe begotten episode in the UUP totally self inflicted form of self destruction just further reflects what has already been posted. In my opinion David Campbell and his cabal have been the prime causes of this Orange lead act of political hari kari. I have even been disciplined for amongst other expressions of fair comment and freedom of expression.with “an unacceptable and personal attack on the former leader Harry West”, who is dead.
    Anyone who approaches me can be given full chapter and verse and copies of letters etc. Contact Points are johnklund@btinternet.com; 028 92619449 and 07910 737013.

  • drumcairnharp

    Believe Harry Hamilton left the UUP because he believed that joanne Dodson was being promoted by the party just because she is female and therefore he never had no chance of being selected. One has only to look at the UUP website to see that this is not the case as Joanne and Sadra Overend only appear in 90 of the 100 photos on show. How could Harry possibily think that Joanne was being promoted more than him,Savage,Gardiner or McCusker.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The UUP political broadcas tonight featured all three of their selected candidates…..Ms Dobson, Ms Overend, Ms Macauley.
    Also I believe Mr Elliott, Mr McCune and Mr Hussey.

    Obviously this is a cross section as 15 of their 30 candidates are women.
    Or maybe not.

  • Drumlins Rock

    dammed if you do dammed if you don’t….

    that’s equality for you.