UUP leadership election – the final triumph of civic Unionism?

UPDATE 2 So, I royally called this wrong with magical timing. However I stand by the analysis as reasons why Kennedy isn’t the front runner he is touted as, and why McCallister might now be tempted to cut a deal with Nesbitt. Why is Kennedy weakened? What HAS changed in the last 18 months – don’t forget it was Kennedy ruling himself out that pushed Elliott into the job he never wanted. What precisely was this all about? How will he square that and the decision to build a road they really don’t want with Elliott’s support base in Fermanagh? Can he stand on a platform removed from unionist unity and be believed? He now has momentum and claims to have a “clear majority” of MLAs. We’ll see. But he certainly isn’t going to walk it.

I wrote and published the below article over the weekend. It was up for half an hour when Mick called me to let me know the entire premise was false. Kennedy had not ruled himself out, the Portadown Times was wrong. I republish it now because as time goes on I get the feeling more and more that he wont in fact stand. Why would he? What has changed since he took the decision not to 18 months ago? Alex Kane clearly thinks that the difference between Nesbitt and McCallister will be on opposition, and given that was the only division between me and Rodney McCune on Inside Politics yesterday, he may be right. But that being the case, both men need to be wary of their position. There is no easy answer to the question, and the balance between having a winning message on 31st March and a workable position on 2nd April is narrow.

First published on Saturday:

The Portadown Times are reporting that Danny Kennedy has ruled himself out of the UUP leadership election. With Basil McCrea reportedly out of the country for two weeks as of yesterday morning, that appears to only leave Mike Nesbitt and John McCallister.

Not so long ago we used to talk about a divide within unionism between ethnic and civic unionists. It’s clumsy but has the ring of truth to it. By using these generalisations, Kennedy ruling himself out on the face of it leaves the UUP leadership a straight fight between civic Ulster Unionists. There is no other “ethnic” UUP member with a realistic chance of taking the leadership.

Assuming that McCrea is out, which he should be if for no other reason than he had his go, failed, and should now row in behind John out of reciprocal loyalty, this election will be between Nesbitt and McCallister. Nesbitt has his own growing support base within the party in greater Belfast, but will also attract support from those in the west who noticed his loyalty to Elliott from even before the last leadership election. But he may suffer for being something of an unknown quantity given that he is a party member of barely two years standing. McCallister is a popular man within the Party, and will prove in this election to be more than capable of winning support through sheer force of personality in a campaign of this nature. However some of his media performances have left a mark with some that he frankly doesn’t deserve. But he has it nonetheless.

The question that this matching raises, is what is the difference? I’m not convinced there is one to speak of. Both are transparently civic Unionists. Both were true believers in the UCUNF project. Both men have their own support bases, quickly assembled in their short years in politics. It is even something of a barometer that neither man is likely to court David McNarry but both are going to want David McClarty back. On the night, they might struggle to differentiate themselves from the other, which invites self inflicted wounds in trying too hard to find a USP.

There are few wildcards out there, and any that do appear will have a mountain to climb. With Kennedy out it surely must be Mike Nesbitt’s to lose. But John McCallister is the one man in the UUP capable of taking it off him. With nothing to lose, I’d be shocked if he didn’t give it a crack.

  • iluvni

    ” With Basil McCrea reportedly out of the country for two weeks as of yesterday morning..”

    ……on Assembly business or is turning up for work optional these days?

  • GoldenFleece

    Your timing is impeciable Mr Shilliday lol. Mark Devenport says that Kennedy is definitely running for leadership.

    I think he will win, he is more likely to get the Fermanagh heartland.

  • Drumlins Rock

    GF, don’t take such things for granted, Michael’s note on loyalty might be quite accurate.

  • Jim White

    Yes perfectly timed indee! For the second time in as many days, the main assumption of the article does indeed seem to be incorrect.
    What’s more not only is he running, Ken Reid is tweeting that he has the support of the party’s elected representatives. Surely the man to beat?

  • Jim White


  • IJP

    To publish something in error once may be regarded as a misfortune… still, there’s many a slip…

  • dwatch

    Even though he received 47% in a Newsletter poll recently the MLA from God knows where he f*@kingwell stands has spoken.

    McNarry: I cannot stand for UUP post

  • Banjaxed

    Kennedy may stand for the job but, imo, he would be as big a disaster as Tom Elliott. He has an unfortunate and hesitant speaking style with little stops and starts that make for uncomfortable listening. Nor does he strike me as having the qualities of a confident leader of men. Consequently, in this age of Style v Substance, it might be the better option to go for a candidate who has the better communication skills and presentation. And given the mess the OUUs have made for themselves over the last few years, it can’t do any harm whatever to have a bit of style about them. I cannot comment on whether Mike Nesbitt has or has not any substance behind his smooth facade because, as others have stated, his track record is quite short. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that he is one of the best communicators in the current political scene.

    On the wider picture, both Nesbitt and McCallister have a definite and declared secular approach to their type of unionism and would not have as high an Orange profile, if any at all, as Kennedy. Furthermore, as the Orange Order has more or less abandoned Official Unionism for the DUP, it might be time to ask what is the point of the UUP. Without the Orange link, what, apart from their unionism and loyalty to the Crown, does the UUP stand for? If they are trying to reach out for the Catholic Unionist vote, should they not now engage in forging closer links with the Alliance Party? If they are not interested in reaching out, then they can always swallow hard and go to the DUP.

  • dwatch
  • OneNI

    Shrewd move by Kennedy. I expect a coronation with no one else standing. Nesbitt as Deputy and Minister.

    Michael – stick with the law not political punditry!

  • Michael Shilliday

    I’ve updated it. Again. It didn’t make sense to me for Kennedy to stand 2 hours ago, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense now.

  • I think most people consider only the “Big Four” …but I think UUP consider the safest pair of hands is Danny Kennedy.
    Basil McCrea has had his chance and has slightly gone off the radar in the last year. His thunder has been stole by John McCallister who is a genuinely nice guy and has an appeal that McCrea does not have. McCallister is now the leading “liberal” hope. But too many of the people who might have stayed within the UUP and possibly have voted for him as Leader have already gone.

    Nesbitt…..he is new to politics. But conversely…experienced.And I take the point that he has been loyal but surely he is sart enough to know that Elliott was doomed anyway and that being loyal was a good tactic.

    I think Alex Kane mentioned Danny Kinahan. Not a name I would have considered myself. Yet it makes perfect sense. He is loyal and ticks a lot of unionist boxes….paternal big house, loyal, a former military officer, personal liberal sentiments but with a connexion to long (liberal) unionist service. And I was impressed with him as he chaired a Young Unionist debate in East Belfast last summer.
    I think he is not a media man….has no “side” to him……….and just might tick enough boxes to appeal to a broad section of UUP people.

  • OneNI

    “It didn’t make sense to me for Kennedy to stand 2 hours ago, and it doesn’t make a LOT of sense now.”
    Who knows how you will change in another 2 hours!?
    just kind in two weeks time you’ll be loyally telling us how Danny is the future!
    How is the UUP rebuilding in London going anyhow?

  • dwatch

    All the old brigade, Empey, Trimble, Maginnis, Nicholson, the party chairman plus the majority of MLA’s including Elliott have come out in full support of Kennedy. Nesbitt, McCallister & McCrea can forget it. The game is over.

    Danny Kennedy to stand for UUP leadership

  • IJP


    Frankly, fair play to you admitting it and leaving it up.

    I think the mistake you’ve made all along is that politics has anything to do with reason or logic. It hasn’t, particularly not internal party politics, and even more particularly not in the UUP.

    The UUP is unleadable, but it is controlled to some degree by a group of people for whom Danny Kennedy would obviously have appeal – for much the same reasons Tom Elliott did.

    I like Danny Kinahan personally but the idea that someone who lives in a Castle would (nominally) lead a political party in Northern Ireland in 2012, when the key issues are austerity, welfare reform and the NHS, simply demonstrates my own impression that the UUP at heart has never really moved on from 1959.

  • IJP


    We cross-posted, but even though you don’t link to your sources you are exactly right.

    Those are the same men, by the way, who will deliberately have put paid to a longer leadership campaign; they knew who they wanted and the quicker the better. They don’t want to let anyone else get traction!

  • Michael Shilliday

    The UUP is unleadable? Now where have I read that before this week?

    I think dwatch is wrong on how those individuals will split, but even if he wasn’t none of them have or would use any influence to speak of in this election. This one is going to come down to who the rank and file like and don’t like. Kennedy won’t get whitewashed, but he wont win either. Key blocs in the party wont like his ties to the DUP, the A5 decision, the PT article, his position on opposition. Fermanagh will break evenly for Nesbitt and Kennedy, Nesbitt will take the east.

  • IJP

    I’m going to say that that is incredibly naive, Michael. The great and the good know who they want – or, more to the point, who they don’t want. Your party is also a lot more hard-line in actuality than you like to think (and than I liked to think, but I learned my lesson).

    But we’ll see, of course.

  • OneNI

    Nesbitt’s running is he Michael?
    Are you running his campaign?

  • alan56

    DUP links, The A5 and his closeness to McNarry won’t help DK capture the ‘Fermanagh’ vote. If Tom Elliott felt it was time for change then why hand over to DK.(no change)..? Some political parties choose a leader based on charisma, ability,intelligence, media skills and a ruthless political determination. Would this really be an accurate description of DK?

  • alan56

    Forgot to mention that Nesbitt did remain loyal to Tom Elliott

  • separatesix

    It’s a pity it wasn’t a younger person or a woman as a contender for leader of the UUP. There is too much in-fighting in the party, they need to know what they stand for as a political party, be it traditional or a liberal party, they could lose members from one of the wings but the Ulster Unionists are heading for political oblivion if they can’t decide who they are. In 2012 they can no longer be a “broad church”. There is no difference between the DUP – UUP anymore except the latter comes across as an out of touch unelectable gentleman’s club.

  • dwatch

    “Fermanagh will break evenly for Nesbitt and Kennedy, Nesbitt will take the east.”

    Doubt it Michael, you are forgetting the big OO support Kennedy has (which includes Elliott & Maginnis) in the F & ST area. Maginnis was the one who organised all the buses to bring the 3/400 OO/UUP Fermanagh & ST members up to Belfast at Elliott’s election 18 months ago. He can do the same again for Kennedy. Nesbitt may be an excellent communicator with the media, but he is still wet behind the ears with no OO support. I don’t believe he is even a member. The Orange Order still has tremendous loyalty to the UUP in Fermanagh.

  • alan56

    Maginnis never a member of OO. It was not OO support that elected Elliot it was the ‘decent local man’ support.

  • Jim White

    The drain has already begun: BBC now reporting Ballymoney cllr Bill Kennedy has left the UUP for the DUP.
    Though I’m slightly confused I have to admit. I can recall voting for a Bill Kennedy here in my local council- but he was definitely DUP not an Ulster Unionist.

  • OneNI

    Yes jin it is confusing. He was DUP then independent then joined UUP in 2010 just before the vote to see who would be Mayor: (from Ballymoney Times)

    “I’m very happy to join the party. I was always very much attracted to the UUP.
    “They have done a lot for Northern Ireland as last few years.
    “Indeed had it not been for the UUP there would be no Northern Ireland Assembly.
    “I feel very strongly the Ulster Unionists did the spade work and broke new ground.”
    Mr Kennedy said he is confident a UUP resurgence is on the horizon.
    “I think the party has nearly come full circle,” he said.
    “It is being reinvigorated again.
    “There will be new leadership I understand in the next few months.
    “I’m looking forward to seeing progress and making strides for everybody in Northern Ireland.
    “There are a lot of challenges for everybody in Northern Ireland but I think the Unionist party has the experience and is in a good position to speed recovery.”

  • cynic2

    John McAllister and Mike Nesbitt to do a deal and lead the UUP!

    Shall I laugh or shall I cry? Lead it where?

  • OneNI

    Michael you are wrong to think Fermanagh will ‘dislike’ Kennedy’s A5 decision. It wont affect them. On balance will prbably welcome investment West of Bann

  • dwatch

    “Maginnis never a member of OO”

    Correct, he was a member of the Apprentice Boys instead, and a Major in the UDR.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Well, they have little to lose I suppose. I reckon the best positioning for them, given the DUP’s territory, is to play on the DUP’s Little Ulster mentality and try to be more centrist – taking votes from Alliance and winning back some of the less hardline DUPers that used to vote UUP. They can’t be an umbrella party any more and should forget about the OO.

    More than anything, they just need to seem like a party that is on the way back. For that they need real freshness and a bit of a positive vision. Nesbitt seems the best choice to me to lead that. I’d worry that all the other candidates mentioned are OK but wouldn’t make the bold shift that is clearly needed.

  • Drumlins Rock

    can I assure you Ken had very little if anything to do with the FST Buses, this time round there prob won’t be as many but I think if it is a Danny or Mike contest the support will be divided, at least 2 to 1, if not half and half, and I can’t call which way as yet but early indications would favour Mike…

  • Drumlins Rock

    OneNI, you don’t know Fermanagh, the rivalry with Omagh is rather tense at times shall we say, and the A5 benefits its rival but not Fermanagh at all, plus anything that had a less than positive reflection on Tom does not paly well with the membership down there.

  • alan56

    It would be foolish to assume that the FST support for Tom Elliot would automatically transfer to DK, or anyone else. Their support will be won by whoever looks like the best person to lead the party forward and reconnect with the electorate across Northern Ireland. Unlikely that there will be convoy of buses heading up the M1 this time!

  • emanonon

    I think it seems evident that Mr Shilladay needs a lot more experience and maturity before he sets himself up as a political commentator.

    It has been obvious that Kennedy would be the new leader with Nesbitt as his number 2 and media ‘star’ but one with a past. The interesting question is what will McCrae and McAllister do? This team will not countenance Unionist Unity, not going into opposition, and being told what to do by a leadership they do not respect.

  • alan56

    I see the ‘black arts’ have started!

  • Michael Shilliday

    Good analysis emanonon. Except that you misspelt every name in your post. And you claim something to be obvious that in not only not obvious, but isn’t going to happen.

    Otherwise spot on.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Which of the major contenders – Kennedy, McCallister, Nesbitt, McCrea, McNarry (!) are in the Orange?

    I think I’m right in saying Kennedy’s a senior Orangeman, isn’t he?

    Is the UUP ready for its first non-Orange leader?

  • dwatch

    “Which of the major contenders – Kennedy, McCallister, Nesbitt, McCrea, McNarry (!) are in the Orange?”

    Kennedy & McNarry are both Orangemen according to Wikipedia references. I am not 100% sure about McCallister but both McCrea & Nesbitt I believe are non Orange.

  • Michael Shilliday

    McCallister isn’t in the Orange. It isn’t a consideration anymore.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    ‘It isn’t a consideration anymore.’

    Why? What has changed since eighteen months ago?

  • IJP

    It’s very much a consideration. Indeed, it could well prove decisive. Not unlike moderate UUP types in general, Michael does not realise just how hardline his party is.

    That said, the coronation plan (if there was one, and I strongly suspect there was) has not gone to plan.

    What we now have is one Leadership candidate intent on remaining in government, and one intent on opposition; the third, I suspect, will try to fudge it. You can’t get more divided than that!

  • Drumlins Rock

    I’m an active Orangeman, and I’m backing Nesbitt if he stands, I have spoke to quite a few active party members, and Orange members in the past few days, almost all would support Nesbitt, with some others I’m sure the Orange factor will be enough to make then back Danny, prob more will suppport him because he is probably the nicest guy in Stormont. But finally the first ingredient of reviving a party is coming to the fore, a real hunger to win elections, and they see Mike as a bigger vote winner than Danny.

  • Billy Pilgrim

    Drumlin’s Rock

    Are they really going to give the leadership to someone who not only isn’t in the Orange, but who wasn’t even in the party until about five minutes ago?

    (Seems unlikely, on both counts.)

  • dwatch

    “McCallister isn’t in the Orange. It isn’t a consideration anymore.”

    McCallister has decided to stand : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-17344343
    So we will see now if McCrea supports him or throws his hat in the ring. At least this will prove how many members want the UUP to go into opposition or not.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Billy, it may seem strange but could well turn out to be true…

  • dwatch

    McCrea has just informed the BBC 1PM news he is not standing for leadership, but is coming in behind McCallister. Will Nesbitt stand or not now is the next question.

  • dwatch
  • Drumlins Rock

    You were right all along Mr Shilladay!

  • IJP

    If only Michael had waited, he would have been a prophet ahead of his time!

    The “coronation” of Kennedy, who never really wanted it, clearly did not go to plan; it appears they will now seek a coronation of Nesbitt.

    I see no problem having a Leader who has only recently joined the party; indeed, we should be seeking more people with real life experience to get involved in politics at the highest level.

    I do see a lot of problems having a Leader intent on fudging everything, who comes across as arrogant (the weird “Am I?” line on yesterday’s Nolan being only the most recent example), and who has already placed on record some truly outrageous sentiments. It is also noteworthy, of course, that he only joined the party because of the Conservative link-up.

    So I don’t think the DUP or Alliance will be losing too much sleep, though if it serves to reinvigorate them from their current slightly passive slumber, it’ll be good for politics.