Don’t underestimate McCallister’s capacity to disrupt some of the UUP’s best laid plans…

Interesting blog piece from Alex Kane over at Eamon’s place… not least for his account for how Danny Kennedy’s (the bookie’s favourite) bid came to a sudden, and crunching end:

It was obvious from the outset that Danny Kennedy and Mike Nesbitt were keen on a deal that would embrace thirteen of the fifteen MLAs, all of the peers and the bulk of the party officers. The logic, I presume, was that such a move would scare off the ‘liberals’ from putting up one of their own candidates; allowing the party to avoid a contest and rally around a supposed dream ticket. This would allow continuity, yet ensure better presentational and organisational skills at the top of the party.

But John McCallister decided to move first and move early, which meant that the negotiations between Kennedy and Nesbitt became more complicated: becoming a battle about who was best able to beat McCallister. Complicating matters further was the fact that McCallister’s pitch on immediate Opposition would force the party to make a very clear cut decision—something it tends to avoid.

…by the time of Nesbitt’s launch on March 15, tallies suggested that Kennedy probably wouldn’t win on the first round and that the transfer of either the McCallister or Nesbitt vote would split between them rather than going in big enough numbers to him. He paid the price for dithering—-a fatal flaw for anyone serious about leadership.

But, he counsels:

No-one should assume that McCallister is heading towards massive and certain defeat. Jim Molyneaux didn’t win in 1979 by saying that he would do little or nothing for the next sixteen years. David Trimble didn’t win in 1995 by saying that he would negotiate a deal with Sinn Fein. Reg Empey didn’t win in 2005 by saying he would do a deal with the Conservatives. Tom Elliott didn’t win in 2010 by saying he would ok secret talks with the DUP.

McCallister is telling them exactly what he intends to do from day one. If he wins on March 31 he will take the UUP out of the Executive on April 2. He will claim that his mandate is from the highest source of authority within the party—the members who turn up at the AGM of the Ulster Unionist Council. The very fact that he is telling them what he intends to do, and is using his campaign as a mandate for that policy, may have surprisingly broad appeal for a party membership which is used to hearing about policy changes on television or in newspapers!

Adds: Well worth listening to Eamonn’s interview with John McCallister… It gets a lot sharper towards the end. If you’re stuck for time, clip to the last fifteen minutes where McCallister turns the tables the elegantly pugnacious Eamonn several times…

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  • A very good piece by Kane. Interesting though that he rates McCallister’s chances so highly. Will a significant number of Elliott supporters back him over Nesbitt, or is it just that there won’t be as many buses coming from Enniskillen this time around?

  • London_Irish

    If Alex Kane is looking in on this blog, I would like him to answer me one question:
    What, in his opinion, do the bulk of Ulster Unionist party members (grassroots, elected, and officers alike) regard as the first priority for the new leader:
    A. Internal party restructuring
    B. Challenging the DUP for supremacy
    C. All of the above as they are not mutually exclusive
    For what it is worth, my opinion is that it is a bit of a conundrum for whoever emerges at the top of the greasy poll at the end of March because:
    – You can’t do B without first doing A
    – If you do A too quickly, you’ll be accused of running an autocracy by members of a party who seem to like airing their linen in public, and a party who don’t want their leader to do too much leading
    – If you aren’t seen to be doing B because you are slowly but surely doing A, you will be portrayed by the News Letter and the Belfast Telegraph as not doing anything, and that won’t really help with voters
    – If you try to do C, then you’ll upset everyone!
    I’m sure such dilemmas aren’t unique to the UUP, but it really does seem that leading the party has become the most thankless job in politics after the one currently held by Micheál Martin.

  • Turgon

    The idea of the buses from Fermanagh is flawed. Without Fermanagh votes Elliott would have won a commanding victory last time. In this election I would be surprised if there were an almost completely united Fermanagh position (as there was last time).

    Alex likes McCallister’s position re opposition (he has always been a huge supporter of it) so he may be a bit biased but this election is much more interesting than the last one.

    McCallister is a much more likeable character with vastly less baggage than the “outsider” last time: Basil McCrea. He also appeals to the traditional rural vote as a farmer. He has a clear idea and vision for moving forward. All that is attractive.

    Nesbitt on the other hand looks a little too worried about annoying any parts of the coalition building behind him. His position looks a bit like more of the same but he is offering stability and less of a “death or glory” charge. He also has the backing of more of the party. He offers a good media face and is also “fresh” having not been associated with the long gradual demise of the UUP. Equally he could be seen as a jonny come lately.

    It is actually a very difficult choice for the UUP. I am not sure who I would vote for if I was in their position. I have a feeling that either leader will try hard, do interesting things and ultimately fail under the steam roller that is the DUP.

  • Turgon,

    I was (half) joking about the buses. I think this is a much more interesting contest than last time round in that neither candidate then had the same air of competence that these two have. And I agree that McCallister is much less of a divisive figure than McCrea. Whether that will translate to votes I’m less sure of. The UUP have consistently seen dithering as a more forgivable failing than decisiveness and I’m still not convinced they’ve changed that much.

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s something to be said for taking over a party at the bottom of the market..

    The key to working out whether McCallister is or is not taking over at an advantageous moment is to understand whether it really is at the bottom of the market. To some extent, that’s what the party will be betting voting on.

    Personally, I flip flop on matter of Opposition. Though McCallister may have hasty in suggesting he could sack McNarry, I do think he’s proved himself not only nimble on his feet, but demonstrates he both has thought about this and cares enough not to equivocate.

    Listen to his long form interview with Eamonn here:

    Eamonn goes for him several times and each time he not only deals with ball well, he good naturedly flips Eamonn over for the underlying assumptions in his questioning.

    And he seems, at this stage at least to be enjoying himself somewhat… when was the last time you saw that in a politician… must be all that good Rathfriland air…

  • London_Irish


    I agree that John McCallister seems very comfortable in his own skin in that interview with Eamonn Mallie. It is very refreshing to hear an Ulster Unionist make it clear that he has no problem in describing himself as ‘Irish’ – if you trawl through the Hansards of the 1921-1972 Stormont you will see that it is very much a Troubles inspired point of contention that (some/most) Unionists insist on an almost complete separation of Irishness and Britishness. (In the earliest sessions of the NI HoC, many Unionst MPs referred to the ‘Six Counties’!)

    Mike Nesbitt’s approach of not wanting to offend anyone, and sit on a perceived secure lead, reminds me a little of Michael D’s approach in his bid for the Áras, and the momentum gathering behind John McCallister a little like that of Seán Gallagher. Perhaps McNarry is waiting to send an explosive tweet just before the polls open?

  • Mick Fealty

    Can’t see this getting that rough. The race for the Aras was bogging dirty because they couldn’t talk about anything other than personal character. And there’s no marathon involved.

    If McCallister does win, life is going to get more interesting (and unpredictable) than it has been in a long long time…

  • London_Irish

    It certainly will, probably a bit too exciting for the core demographic of the UUP membership though…

    In his interview with Mallie, John repeated his threat about expelling McNarry and actually went further in talking about him in fairly disparaging terms. Hypothetically, if McCallister was elected and McNarry found not to warrant expulsion by the UUC, this could really turn out to be like Trimble and Donaldson all over again.

  • A UUP councillor took me to the previous election gathering near Ballymena. After the two speeches Tom Elliott mainly sat to one side quietly with a few members whereas Basil McCrea ‘worked the room’ – John McCallister never left his shoulder but didn’t seem to contribute much. I’ve no idea what leadership skills Mike Nesbitt has but, at least, he’s quite a good communicator. David Trimble IMO was very capable but failed to build sufficient team support.

    I come across quite a few parties during the course of my NALIL blogs. The UUP needs to work harder; it also needs to raise its public profile; electorally there’s not much benefit if you do a superb job but very few people know about it.

    The quality of local and regional governance leaves a lot to be desired so there’s plenty of scope for a Minister, an MLA, an MP, an MEP and a Councillor to make their mark. In my limited contact with Danny Kennedy he showed early promise but then appeared to fizzle out.

    In terms of opponents the DUP has a strong machine but doesn’t appear to shine in the competence stakes; the APNI has no presence in my neck of the woods and when a presence did appear briefly it was of little consequence.

    Jim Allister is a very competent politician but the TUV, as a small party, needs to be able to build coalitions across ‘the divide’ in mainly nationalist constituencies and has yet to demonstrate the flexibility to do that.

    The SDLP and SF are not really UUP opponents and SF seems to have a lot more impact than the SDLP though, in Moyle, independent republicans have made serious in-roads into the nationalist and, especially, republican vote. The ‘nuisance’ that some of my associates and I cause is more likely to appear in a SF press release than in that of any other party.

    There’s plenty of space between the DUP and Alliance but the new UUP leader needs to display a bit more attitude, a bit more edge. I wonder who’ll step up to the mark.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, I didn’t read past “UUPs best laid plans…” in the title, anyone who thinks we actually plan things is very much mistaken 🙂

  • dwatch

    Who will take Danny Kennedy’s ministerial post if McCallister wins the leadership election?

  • London_Irish


    D’Hondt will be re-run for all the seats so one could argue its anyones guess. However, I’m sure the other parties will agree to select the departments they already have in order to minimise the disruption. In that case, as the party entitled to the next seat according to the formula, the DUP would take it.

  • Drumlins Rock

    John Taylor

  • dwatch

    Thank you London Irish, if SF or the SDLP gained the seat then going into opposition would have been an own goal.

  • London_Irish

    Not a bother, dwatch!

    If you wish to be more specific and ponder as to whom within the DUP would get the post, that is another matter:

    That DUP have already announced their future ministers (Hamilton in Finance and Wells in Health (any others?)), so it is possible that this would be a good opportunity for them to cut their ministerial teeth for a year or so.

    Alternatively, would Jonathan Bell be seen as the obvious choice as the current Junior Minister?

    The party is full of young(ish) aspiring MLAs (Pam Lewis, Alistair Ross), and a few who seem quite content to remain backbenchers (David Hilditch). Furthermore, there are a few within the parliamentary party who clearly fall into the hardline wing who wouldn’t necessarily help things along by being selected (Ian McCrea, Campbell etc). Furthermore, the fundamentalist wing of the party is currently represented by McCausland, so no need to elevate someone like Mervyn Storey, even if he is fairly popular and pragmatic.

    Perhaps Peter Weir could get the call, as Chief Whip (albeit only de facto, we all know the Lord Morrow runs the show). As Chief Whip/Assembly Group Leader he speaks on all topics and seems to have a good grasp of them, and is very good dealing with ammendments etc. He would need to smarten himself up though, he looks like a cross between an old school university academic and a rebelious teenager who won’t do their tie up properly.

    Alternatively, Arlene Foster looks rather lonely as the only woman in the DUP Executive team – maybe the likes of Michelle McIlveen could join her – the party need to find a new way of being the choice of female unionists now that the UUP have Overend and Dobson in their ranks.

    Having said that – and well aware that I’m going dangerously off topic – I’ll play it safe and say that despite the party’s commitment to ending double jobbing, Gregory Campbell will get the post, safe int he knowledge that he is curtains at Westminster once East Derry becomes Glenshane.

  • Comrade Stalin


    D’Hondt will be re-run for all the seats so one could argue its anyones guess.

    No, you are wrong. According to the Northern Ireland Act, the seat is allocated according to how the d’Hondt formula would have operated if the party was not counted for inclusion in the executive in the first place.

    Which means the seat would go to Alliance.

    In that case, as the party entitled to the next seat according to the formula, the DUP would take it.

    I think you are forgetting to take account of the fact that Alliance are due to lose a ministry soon.

  • London_Irish

    I stand corrected re re-running d’Hondt/re-allocating the seat. (For anyone interested, this is the relevant Section of the NI Act
    On the current numbers, however, the DUP by my reckoning would fill the post, as Alliance still holds the DEL ministry. As the Department will still be there on the 1st April, it will be the DUP’s pick to replace Danny Kennedy. When the Department is abolished, you are right that the post would then be the Alliance’s by right. How that will work, I don’t know, but clearly the plans for abolishing DEL to rebalance the party standings in the Executive didn’t take in to account a party voluntarily withdrawing.
    I am of course, open to correction on this.

  • McCallister is going to win this contest, as he is the only one who doesn’t support the ‘more of the same’ agenda.Nesbitt has been thoroughly dismissed from 3,000 miles away over his referendum for every day of the week schtick. His judgement has to be pretty ropey. But Kane is right that neither has a hope of uniting what is a congenitally fractious rump of a party.

  • carnmoney.guy

    Listened to the interview with John McCallister,
    Shocked at the figures he quoted for the FST westminister election result, as he put it ‘that little venture’….ouch,
    namely unionist combined vote down 7% while SF up 17% , thought he got it wrong and checked it, a great example to those advocating unionist unity about getting all shades of unionism out, even to oust a sitting Shinner MP

    His wish to engage with everyone doesn’t appear to cover David McNarry, I wonder if Mike Nesbitt is as biting towards his fellow Strangford MLA ?

  • alan56

    London Irish
    I think you have hit on what the difference in the two candidates really is. McCallister seems ‘more comfortable in his own skin’. Mike Nesbitt come across so far as perhaps trying too hard to be popular with everyone. His calculation is that this approach wins the vote….but it then shackles you for ever and a day to trying to square the circle. McCallister’s gamble is that enough members will see that this approach has failed them over the last 10 years. shaping up to be a fascinating contest

  • andnowwhat

    Surely to be in opposition, a party needs a banner of intent and policy?

    The Labour party are screwed as an opposition because their policies (well, they very few they declare) are not greatly at odds with what the ConDems are doing save for a weak notion.

    Blair saw off how many Tory leaders and it was a walk in the park for him because the Tories had no defined position save for opposition for it’s own sake.

    So, what is the position of the UUP? They can’t complain about cuts as they are the wannabe love child of the tories? I like Mc Callister. He’d probably have made a good minister for agriculture. He comes across to me who cares more about things like farm subsidies than flags. I doubt anyone would even give him the GAA test as he hasn’t put himself in an Elliot, Ulster Unionist retro position.

  • cynic2

    Nesbitt so far comes across as hollow. Only the UUP could see him as the saviour – with nary a policy or position about him.

    I fear that if he wins its only because the backwoods king-makers inn the Fermanagh Unionist Party see him as easier to predict and control.

    Tom Elliott II

  • Alex Kane

    Good morning London_Irish.

    Apologies for not getting back earlier.

    London_Irish (profile)

    22 March 2012 at 2:35 pm

    If Alex Kane is looking in on this blog, I would like him to answer me one question:
    What, in his opinion, do the bulk of Ulster Unionist party members (grassroots, elected, and officers alike) regard as the first priority for the new leader:
    A. Internal party restructuring
    B. Challenging the DUP for supremacy
    C. All of the above as they are not mutually exclusive

    I think the only priority should be carving out a clear identity, purpose and direction for themselves: something that cannot be done while they remain locked and limp in the Executive.

    A) Has been ongoing since 1995 and still not completed.

    B) It’s not about supremacy as such. The UUP just needs to look like a credible, vote-worthy alternative.

    To be blunt, I suspect that “the bulk of Ulstter Unionist party members” just want to see something, anything, that resembles a political/electoral recovery.

    McCallister’s is, by a very long margin, the riskier option: but I see no evidence to support the argument that remaining in the Executive has done/is doing the UUP any favours.



  • Backbencher

    From an outsiders point of view I must confess I find this contest very interesting.

    Initially I was of the opinion Nesbitt would win easily however the more I hear from McCallister the more I am inclined to think me has a chance.

    The whole opposition strategy has an appeal to it, it would certainly generate some debate which the UUP would be in the middle of (for all the right reasons -for a change)