The result can be interpreted in a number of ways. It’s certainly a clear endorsement for Mike Nesbitt as leader, and the party didn’t shy away from a “fast track” leader. It can also be seen as a clear rejection of going into opposition immediately, though some members go further and say it’s a rejection of opposition ever. While earlier in the morning the star of the show had definitely been baby Harry, it didn’t translate into votes.
In amongst other AGM business, the two candidates came down individually to the hall to address the 900 delegates (660 of whom were eligible to vote). Three buses from Fermanagh – with members reportedly greeted by Mike Nesbitt and his wife as they stepped down. Media were kept outside the hall, so we can’t tell how closely either candidate kept to the scripts that were circulated to us. Not a mention by the two candidates of the Titanic, or David McNarry!
Mike Nesbitt went first. Kitted up with a lapel radio mic, he abandoned the lectern and spoke from the stage. He referenced Tom Elliott (his friendship, support and mentoring), the Union Flag (which he said was “not a meal ticket, or a passport to employment”) and the National Anthem (which his mother made him made him listen to while others dashed for the exit after the last screening at the cinema).
He reached out to non-traditional unionists without naming religion.
I want us to reach out to become the Party of choice for every pro-union voter in Northern Ireland, including those who still say they want a United Ireland, but privately accept there is no longer a single reason not to enjoy their continued membership of the United Kingdom.
Mike Nesbitt wants longevity in his leadership – “to lead this party back to power, through at least two electoral cycles” – and it should be no surprise that his four “key outcomes” are more councillors, bigger vote in Europe, Ulster Unionists back at Westminster and retaking the Office of the First Minister.
Unionist Unity is out: “I don’t want to be a super-Prod. I want to be a super Unionist.”
The policies to deliver that? That’s still up for grabs.
There is no Quick Fix. There is no Big Idea beyond hard work.
So “better policies” will be “better communicated”. Policies will flow out of Policy Advisory Groups, informed by practitioners drawn from across the party (and by the sounds of it from outside).
And the party organisation still has room for improvement.
I want to break down the silos of MLAs, Councillors, HQ staff, Constituency staff, members, Young Unionists, the Women’s Council. We have to work together.
I voxpopped members as they arrived asking what was the one thing they wanted the new leader to do. Over half said they wanted a leader to unite the party and stop the divisions.
One definitive change of emphasis will be that under Mike Nesbitt the party won’t rest on its laurels. It can be quietly proud of “the heavy lifting” that brought about stable devolved government, but it’ll have to go out and earn its future place in the local political landscape.
The electorate does not want to hear about the heavy lifting anymore. They want to know about what heavy lifting we’re going to undertake tomorrow. Together we can do it. What I want to do is lead us back, on merit, to the heart of Government, in our councils, in Europe, Westminster and Stormont.
John McCallister was next to enter the hall. On paper it looked like a much stronger speech than his opponent. But afterwards, party members spoke more favourably of Nesbitt’s delivery, and the 81/19 split of the vote tells a story.
John referenced back to history, citing the UUP as “the party of the Covenant” and “the party of the Agreement”. He too paid tribute to Tom Elliott as outgoing leader. But it was time to once more be “bold and radical”.
For John, opposition was a natural progression from Tom Elliott’s “game-changer” and last February’s promise when he “committed Ulster Unionism to the creation of an opposition at Stormont by 2015”.
It falls to the next Leader of this Party – in the face of outright rejection of this agenda by the DUP and Sinn Fein – to ensure that the politics of carve-up is challenged … Not only with words but with deeds.
Staying in the Executive would continue the routine criticism of UUP minister “by their so-called ministerial colleagues in the DUP and Sinn Fein”.
We get equal blame when things go wrong and very little credit when things go right. We are unable to criticise without sounding like hypocrites for staying in. We kid ourselves that voters see us as some sort of plucky internal opposition. And do you know something, ladies and gentlemen: I think that the DUP is delighted that we remain in the Executive—allowing them to peddle the nonsense that it isn’t just a carve-up between them and Sinn Fein.
Like Mike, John wanted to “tap into the wealth and depth of talent that exists within our membership … ordinary members prepared to help out in their areas of specialist knowledge and expertise.
Mike and I have different strategies when it comes to how we achieve the end goal of growth and recovery.
In his speech he pointed to how he differed from his opponent.
At the outset of my leadership campaign I said I was an unashamed progressive, liberal unionist. I don’t hide it. It’s who I am, it’s what I believe.
John voiced a decisiveness that was missing from Mike’s speech.
If you elect me Leader of this Party, I give you my word – there will be no public, private or secret talks with the DUP. No confusion. No mixed messages. No need for clarification. No referendum. No commissions.
Later in the speech he tackled the Programme for Government:
Mike was quoted on Monday as saying that “the programme for government is okay.” Ladies and gentlemen, the Programme for government is not okay.
If you don’t believe me then just listen to the radio and television and read the newspapers. Listen to the opinions of a huge array of organisations in the business, voluntary, private, public, sporting and charity sectors.
There are tens of thousands of people who don’t think that the programme for government is okay. The UUP can be and should be the voice of those people.
John distanced himself from the need to prioritise internal reorganisation over policies.
No communications strategy, no presentational skills, no reform of party structures will make up for a lack of direction.
He finished with a call for support that hit deaf ears.
We have changed Northern Ireland for the better before. Give me your support and we can do it again.
Many party members voted immediately after registration, not waiting to hear the two speeches. Others waited and cast their votes as the voting bins were passed around.
When the leadership vote was counted, the two candidates were called back to the front of the hall. After a few moments, the party chairman asked “Is Mike Nesbitt in the hall?” to which a journalist quipped “he’s away to find a baby”.
As runner up, John McCallister spoke briefly, suggesting that while John was the loser, “Mike’s the one in real trouble”. He promised to serve alongside Mike in any way.
Mike Nesbitt paid tribute to his fellow candidate. He joked:
My mother had a birthday yesterday. She wanted me to torch the house and rescue her from the roof!
Acknowledging that John McCallister and his wife Jane had had quite a week, he said
I want this party to build a great future for [baby] Harry.
Mike acknowledged that he was a relative newcomer to the party.
I did wonder what you’d think about supporting a member with less than three years under his belt as a party member, but your answer was simple and inspiring. It was not a problem. And in that response, you have collectively transformed the image of this party and at this moment I call on everyone, man, woman, young, old, urban, rural, protestant, catholic, who would like to serve as an elected politician to join this party because we fast track people in the Ulster Unionist Party. Come and join us.
From the outside, today’s vote doesn’t in itself make UUP a distinctive offering to the electorate. Prompting a female MLA into the deputy leader (deputy Assembly group leader) position won’t do that either. Neither will setting up commissions and policy groups.
Challenging pre-agreed DUP and Sinn Fein policies and positions will make the UUP distinctive. But it looks like it will take time for that to happen.
PS: Never start an interview with a joke. Particularly if you’re the last in a long line of people asking the same questions.
How many Ulster Unionists does it take to change a light bulb?
I don’t know …
Well I’m afraid we’ll have to set up a commission to find out.
Update – as a quick experiment with Storify I’ve collated various different threads of online content together …
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.