As the UUP continues its long gentle journey downwards…

Who would be in the poor UUP? Alex Kane noted in the Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday, it is the gift to journalists that just keeps on giving, regardless of who is in charge. And the new leader does not have his troubles to seek:

The problem is that there is no sign of the better policies, better organisation, or the better communications.

Indeed, an opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph last week put the UUP – at 11% – on its lowest-ever level of support.

One bad news story has followed another and, last Friday, the party’s officers actually over-ruled Nesbitt’s public call for an executive meeting to discuss the Maginnis debacle, then made matters worse by issuing a statement which didn’t even come close to criticising the peer.

It was an embarrassing and humiliating setback for Nesbitt. Ironically (albeit very typical of the UUP), he didn’t have the power to call the meeting, he didn’t have the approval from those who did have the power and, consequently, he should not have contacted the media to tell them he was calling the meeting.

In essence, he was breaching the very rules he has criticised others of breaching. Hmm: only the UUP.

In in the midst of all of this, rumours abound and gain traction. One tweet sent to me and to several others this week suggested that there would be defections of UUP MLAs. Well, so far none have.

From the BelTel poll it’s clear that they are drifting like some grand but gently deflating earlier century air balloon. At the same time, their former voters are prime targets for Alliance DUP as well as the ever aspiring, never quite arriving Tories.

Any re-organisation of the constituency boundaries would make a rebound tough for any leader to achieve.

Three rather than four Belfast constituencies could end of their tiny foothold there. And a general crunch from six to five member constituencies will spell the end for several more of the party’s dwindling band of MLAs.

The UUP was always a dangerous contraption to fly even in the best of times, and the inexperienced Nesbitt is still struggling to read the manual.

That final remark of John McCallister at the of the UUP’s leadership election must resonate with the winner, “it’s Mike that’s in trouble now”. Having gone through the whole party pack looking for a plausible leader, no one else in the party looks like they even want the job.

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  • between the bridges

    come back tom all is forgiven…

  • dwatch

    I think Tom was only glad to get out. Interesting article below, written when Tom was first elected:

    “The Decline and Fall of the UUP”
    Parties can have bigger problems than their leaders

  • galloglaigh

    I enjoyed Mike Nesbit on Radio Ulster yesterday. He couldn’t explain the difference between what McNarry did, and what Maginnis did. The latter’s support for Nesbit, has shown Mike for what he is – the leader of a party, who is lead by his own backwoodsmen. Nothing changes in the UUP!

  • London_Irish

    How would John McCallister have handled all this?

  • Mick, as you highlight above, perhaps the party’s greatest block to revival has been its own structure – where the leader does not call the shots, but rather a web of local associations and committees. With the left hand constantly undermining the right, and a sprawling construction that supports factionism and prevents strong decisions being forced, surely there was never any way to save the UUP?

    Like so many institutions which have grown and aged, it has sprouted in all directions, and pruned in none.

    Contrast that with Sinn Fein, for example. I have heard it said that by a senior civil servant that, whether you agreed or not, you always knew what you would get with a SF minister at the top. They go behind closed doors, receive their mandate, and come out and make a decision which they largely stick to. Contrast with unionist regimes, whereby what was said on Monday could be considered hogwash by Friday. There’s a lot to be said for control.

    I have often wondered, and I wonder again, what would be lost by a concerned group walking off and starting again…

  • Drumlins Rock

    Peter, pruning is a messy and risky business, I can see a healthy core, but the question is can it survive much more hacking, time will tell.

  • Mick Fealty

    Tim Bale pointed out at the FF Ard Fheis that re-structuring is fine but don’t waste too time much on it… “Get it done quickly and get on to engagement with the wider electorate”.

  • Carsons Cat

    There was a time that the lowest ever opinion poll result for the UUP would have been fairly big-ish news, particularly for the DUP and there would have been a predictable press statement released celebrating their fall.

    There doesn’t appear to have been such a statement released – which is actually much more of a slap in the teeth than any gloating statement. That just means that they’re not even worth gloating about any more.

    There’s nothing worse for a party than not even being worth attacking any more.

  • alex gray

    The idea of pruning the UUP is fundamentally flawed. What’s the use of a “core” that is healthy if there are no limbs to operate and the other organs are failing ? The UUP has to be a broad church to survive at all otherwise it will become a little micro party somewhere in the middle vying with Alliance for notoriously fickle middle class votes. McNarry’s 2 unionist parties working together was the best solution and the best future for the UUP – as a smaller client party for the DUP picking up those votes the DUP itself can never pick up, especially among older voters. Nesbitt is right about one thing – attracting working class voters. The working class unionist vote are the ones not coming out to vote for either the UUP of DUP and he is trying to attract it. The problem is his own middle class baggage and his Tory friends who would be horrified at his espousal of working class voters.

  • Progressive Unionist

    From the BelTel poll it’s clear that they are drifting like some grand but gently deflating earlier century air balloon.

    Splendid metaphor!

  • Unfortunately they are more pinned against than pinning.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I have heard it said that by a senior civil servant that, whether you agreed or not, you always knew what you would get with a SF minister at the top.

    Yeah, like a guilty verdict at an employment tribunal.

    I’d be lost to think of specific accomplishments of SF ministers in office. Aside from academic selection, we are dealing with people who largely rubber stamp what their civil servants tell them.

  • RyanAdams

    “McNarry’s 2 unionist parties working together was the best solution and the best future for the UUP – as a smaller client party for the DUP picking up those votes the DUP itself can never pick up, especially among older voters.”

    Nonsense. The UUP have been wiped out already in North Belfast, and their other Belfast assembly seats are on the way out too. The strongholds of North Down and Lagan Valley have gone wholesale, down to the fact the party crossed key personnel in those constituencies. What exactly do the UUP have to offer the DUP? As you say ‘older voters’ – It’s really just a waiting game for the DUP, which could be accelerated if we get a bad winter. The UUP’s best policy should be to shut up, stop sending mixed messages and stop alienating their already dwindling numbers of voters and hope to hold what they have, which looks like an increasingly tough task.

  • Lionel Hutz


    Why are the Alliance Party not making a big issue about the discrimination finding?

    All I heard was someone saying that it raises alot of questions. They wouldn’t be afraid of annoying Sinn Fein

  • lamhdearg2

    “What exactly do the UUP have to offer the DUP?” in north belfast they have Fred cobain (and his vote).

  • Drumlins Rock

    which those with sense in the DUP realise, the UUP is still of use to them, locally their transfers got them 2 councils seats, and will be vital if they want to keep the 3rd Unionist MLA seat, I’m sure its the same in many other areas, STV is a strange system.

  • lamhdearg2

    fence sitting requires balance,

    “The Armed Forces Flag is to fly from Belfast City Hall for six days next week.” “A motion to fly the flag for six days was discussed at a special meeting of Belfast City Council on Thursday night and was supported by Alliance”.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Why are the Alliance Party not making a big issue about the discrimination finding?

    You may want to ask them for their view, but given that they were on the receiving end of a discrimination case themselves a couple of years ago (which was thrown out when the litigant perjured herself) I would expect that it would seem at the very least a bit unsportsmanlike.

    Discrimination suits against political parties have happened on a few occasions, pretty much all of them at the behest of the Equality Commission (whose criteria, or possible lack of same, for determining what cases are in the public interest have undoubtedly raised the odd eyebrow here and there). Rhonda Paisley sued the DUP, and SF themselves were sued by one of their former employees as I recall. I don’t believe any of the cases were to do with religion, and in both cases they settled before it went to tribunal. As such, a suit could hit any of the parties at any time and the fact that none of these have ever gone anywhere does imply just a little bit of shenanigans somewhere.

    I think we have discussed at some length the “afraid to annoy Sinn Féin” thing. If Alliance really were keen to be best pals with the powerful parties, they might not have sought to embarrass them by publicly disassociating from the CSI committee.

    But either way, to me sychophancy does nothing to secure Alliance’s position. The party are not there because they are nice, but because they fulfill a need that SF and the DUP can’t fulfill themselves. This essentially means that Alliance could be as obnoxious as they wish, although I think the truth is that Ford (along with a number of other MLAs) is quite serious about the job and wants to be constructive. But .. if the DUP and SF ever figure out a way to plug that gap, and I think there’s a chance they will, Alliance will be kicked out of the executive irrespective toute suite of how nice they are or how good a job they are doing.

    On the armed forces flag, well it’s fairly simple. Alliance have a policy which I believe is that in the absence of cross-party agreement flags will be flown in line with the standard policy across the rest of the UK, which in this case is to comply with the MOD request. Today nationalists are pissed off. Tomorrow it will be the unionists as the policy is about to be applied to decide the question around the daily flying of the union flag, which is generally only flown elsewhere in the UK on designated days. You can call that fence sitting; to me it looks like consistency.

    DR, I doubt there is anything more than very flimsy evidence to support what you are saying there, which is basically that there are UUP voters who will come out and transfer to the DUP but will not come out if there is no UUP candidate. It ignores the reality that the DUP have been busy for the last ten years converting UUP voters into DUP voters, albeit DUP voters who may not be comfortable admitting it in public.

  • Alias

    The St Andrews’ deal sealed the fate of the two so-called moderate unionist and nationalist parties so, even if both parties didn’t push their respective self-destruct buttons via a succession of weak leaders, their decline would have happened anyway.

    All that is required is one nationalist party, one unionist party, and one ‘other’ party (PSF, DUP, and Alliance).

    As both parties/tribes are now competing for the First Minister position, other parties from each tribe are counterproductive since they risk splitting the vote. The constitutional dynamic – which the public respond to – is designed to ensure the dominance of PSF/DUP.

    Tony Blair’s government had this dynamic explicit when he set up side deals to reward both of those parties with concessions for their tribe at the direct expense of the other tribe. Both tribe then saw – as they were led to see – that they should promote parties who would demand the most for their tribe and conceed the least to the other tribe.

    It’s Pavlov’s dog applied to NI.

  • Who would have believed it? The UUP Pompeii party finding it’s true level at last as a vechicle for uselessness that, as Reggie Perrin described as the only truly useless thing. Further comment would be surperfluous.

  • Mister Joe

    Further comment would be surperfluous

    Daniel, to make that so, you’ll have to find an analogy from the 1930s.

  • cynic2

    To be fair Mike is determined to modernise the UPP.

    Indeed, I understand that this is an early release of a new training regime for the Party executive that will combine commitment to a unified party policy platform with a real attempt to reach out to Nationalist voters

  • alex gray

    It is far from nonsense suggesting people who continue voting for the UUP will never vote DUP. They have had so many occasions to change their vote and they have not. There are still almost 100,000 of them. Mr Adams, I would also remind you voters are living longer and older voters do come out to vote unlike younger voters who don’t bother. Assertion which appears to be your stock-in trade is not argument.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Alex, the vote has also went up outside of the greater Belfast area.

  • Coast Road Voter

    Unfortunately from your point of view, this is not generally or uniformly the case. From memory, the Officials did indeed make some modest advances at the last council elections outside of G Belfast. Areas in the south of the Province spring to mind, such as Banbridge, Armagh. Though even here, the gains were not that dramatic. Compared to the crushing leads the DUP enjoys over the Ulster Unionists in and around Belfast (often over a 4:1 ratio), the UUP lead even in their council strongholds are often quite slender over their unionist rival.
    However, in other non-Greater Belfast councils (what a mouthful!) the UUP actually lost a significant vote share. In places such as Larne, Ballymoney, Ballymena and Coleraine ect, your party haemorrhaged many votes, not just to Alliance and DUP, but also the TUV and a plethora of independents.
    So it’s fair to say the UUP advances outside Greater Belfast you claim is a fantastically optimistic analysis of the situation, to say the least. Though I admit being an Ulster Unionist in today’s scene does require a great deal of positive thinking! 😉

  • dwatch
  • Comrade Stalin


    Since 2001 the UUP vote (as recorded in council elections) has dropped from 180,000 to 100,000. That’s damn near half, and on average it is a loss heading towards 10,000 votes per year. If that trend continues the UUP will have no votes within the next ten years. The drop did slow somewhat recently but I see no evidence that the decline has been arrested.

    It’d have to be a hell of a theory which says that the ~100,000 remaining voters will not change their minds in the same way that the other ~80,000 did.

  • IJP

    For the record, the UUP vote is not going up anywhere.

    It is fairly stable (but still declining slightly) in the border area (except Derry). Otherwise it is declining markedly.

  • RyanAdams


    “It is far from nonsense suggesting people who continue voting for the UUP will never vote DUP. They have had so many occasions to change their vote and they have not. There are still almost 100,000 of them.”

    87k left and declining at every election, while I would like to see it reverse, I fear its unlikely.

    The electorate aren’t stupid. If they aren’t voting DUP, they’re not likely to vote for the UUP who will prop them up in the role of a slave under McNarry’s idea. You also ignore the risk of alienating any liberals you actually have left in the UUP by such co-operation. Can’t see McCrea or McCallister sticking around in such event, along with voters who may disappear off to Alliance.


    I recognise the vote has went up West of the Bann, but unfortunatley there is not a lot to be gained at Assembly level out there in seats where only two of the six will go to unionist parties. You would need to take 2/3 of the total unionist vote between two candidates, also at risk of letting a fifth nationalist slip through. Contrast with seats East of the Bann with four / five unionist seats available which would be easier to gain.

  • andnowwhat

    What’s the thing with describing the UUP as moderate? They’ve hit as many headlines with anit nationalist and homophobic rants as the DUP.

  • alex gray

    We’re into semantics here Ryan. 87 K is still a lot and with inter-party vote transfers between the UUP could, in particular, benefit. Why does two party cooperation mean domination. It could mean a far more significant share of the spoils for the UUP especially in Westminster seats terms and would take unionism over the 40 seats out of 80 seats in a new reduced assembly, thus ahead of nationalism and not on a par with it either in seats or Executive Ministries.

  • Coast Road Voter

    Mr Fealty,
    I must ask, why has my comment above (at 3:01 pm) been awaiting moderation all this time while others have been able to post successfully since?
    I would appreciate some feedback as to whether I have inadvertently broken the house rules.

  • Alex Kane

    Morning All,

    The bottom line in all of this is whether or not the UUP is now on the wrong side of the tipping point.

    There is no sign whatsoever (and nor has there been for a very considerable period) that the UUP is capable of identifying a specific, separate role and relevance for itself: because if it doesn’t identify those then there is no reason for anyone to vote for it.

    I remember writing a paper for Trimble back in 2001 when I suggested that ‘underlying trends indicated that the downward spiral of the UUP vote presented a huge threat to the party’s survival.’

    Each new election brings the same response:

    “We still have 150,000 voters…

    “We still have 130,00 voters…

    “We still have 102, 000 voters…

    “We still have 90,000 voters…

    “We still have 87,000 voters…

    We don’t yet know if Nesbitt has bucked that trend (and won’t know unti the Euro election of 2014—or maybe the Mid-Ulster by-election later this year): but we do know that one opinion poll has the UUP down, media coverage is mostly negative and Nesbitt’s own performance has been poorer than most people (including his critics) would have expected.

    So, as I say, it may simply be the case that the party is too far down, too irrelevant for most people, to be salvagable.

    McCallister’s option of instant opposition may have provided the basis for some sort of renewed interest—but who really knows?



  • Political parties can be three things: a channel for activists who want to promote a shared vision of society; an electoral machine for candidates to run for office; and a patronage resource for leadership figures who manages to get into government. At their best they are all three.

    In less democratic societies, you still get political parties where the second and third of those functions will eclipse the first, because those in power aren’t terribly interested in a political vision other than staying in power (or getting there).

    But in a democratic society, a political party needs a shared vision for its activists, and just being “the Unionist party that isn’t the DUP” isn’t that. In a really bad year for the DUP it might work, but 2010 was a bad year for the DUP and it didn’t work then.

    A better narrative for the UUP will also have to deal with the past and the present. The party’s history is one of fifty years of one-party rule, and then two failures to implement deals in 1973-4 and 1998-2001, with the last Assembly campaign apparently aiming to bring down the successfully implemented 2007 DUP/SF agreement. Now we have the new leader unable to get a straight answer on gay issues, and apparently proposing to remove state funding from Catholic schools. As I said the other day, which is the more moderate Unionist party now?

  • IJP


    I have to say, after the Nov ’03 election, I don’t remember a single Alliance Party campaigner saying “Ah but we still have 25,000 voters”.

    There was an instant recognition that the buffers were about to be hit before that election, and that they had been hit after it.

    When that happens, you have to find another track.

    UCUNF was another track, but the UUP gave up on it. Opposition would have been another track – probably straight back into the buffers, but another track none the less, but 80% of the UUP didn’t want to know about it.

    For reference, randomly going public with a view about double payment for education and then failing to turn up on the radio to defend that stated position is not another track!

  • Comrade Stalin

    It is something of a minor miracle that Alliance didn’t fold in the early 2000s, and my recollection is that there was serious consideration being given to closing up shop. That miracle is probably best attributed to Ford, and the assembly elections of 2003 were really the party’s Stalingrad.

    Nick, it is worth bearing in mind that it wasn’t Mike Nesbitt who made this proposal first, it was Peter Robinson who suggested it about two years ago, and there was a lot of discussion of it here on Slugger at the time. The difference, I guess, is that Robinson worded it slightly more carefully to try to avoid the suggestion that it was about a cash-grab from the RC Church.

    BTW – in that “go and ask your producer” H&M interview with Mike Nesbitt he talked about his “proposals” which he was releasing in “11 days time”, and that was about three weeks ago. Where are those proposals – is this hamfisted church thing it ?

  • Alias

    “What’s the thing with describing the UUP as moderate? They’ve hit as many headlines with anit nationalist and homophobic rants as the DUP.”

    Well, it was part of Blair’s latter strategy to unite the ‘extremes’ in a power-sharing arrangement so that was DUP/PSF as opposed to SDLP/UUP axis.

    The thinking was that there would be nobody for those ‘extremes’ to look over their shoulder to in the same debilitating way that UUP had to look over its shoulder to the DUP.

    It didn’t matter about the SDLP because the decision had already been made to sacrifice that party’s voters to the Shinners as part of the strategy of using politics as an alternative to violence.

    I suppose you could argue that if the extremes became the biggest parties and then the mainstream that they would also become the moderates in that they would be drawn closer to the voters’ default centre position (with the general public having little patience with fanatics or feuding) but it’s hard to see the logic in that part of Blair’s thinking (if it formed part of it beyond getting Stormont back up and running).

    At any rate, it’s a zero-sum game of ‘demand the most for your tribe, concede the least to the other tribe’ and that’s why the public promoted the DUP/PSF axis as Blair’s government engineered with ‘sweeties’ and side deals.

    You’ll never get beyond that but can work with it as long as the British state continues to manage the settlement behind the scenes.

  • Ben Cochrane

    Comrade Stalin (3.29pm)

    The proposals you ask about are the UUP’s Dealing With The Past Document, which Nesbitt had flagged up on Hearrts and Minds as well as Nolan. They were released around teatime a couple of Mondays ago and—apart from brief mention in News Letter—weren’t covered by anyone. Just another damp squib and far too wooly and wordy.Apparently he didn’t have a press conference because none of the MLas had any input. Maybe this explains why he only survived 18 months in the PR world.


  • andnowwhat

    Alex Kane’s post, hen he talks about the UUP saying, we still have xxxx votes reminds me of the Python skit in one of their movies with the guy who kept having limbs cut off but saying in was only a scratch.

  • Alias,

    In fairness to Blair, he was compelled to accept the necessity of bringing the DUP on board by the electorate, not the other way round. The Labour govt bent over backwards to allow Trimble and the UUP to dictate the pace of the process, up to and after the point when they were no longer electorally viable.

    And I don’t think Blair was ever terribly interested in the SDLP; his priority was to get a settlement that would end IRA violence, which meant that the Shinners were always the most important factor for him – so he concentrated on the UUP/SF axis rather than any UUP/SDLP axis, and then the DUP/SF axis in latter days. The shift of votes from the SDLP to SF was the consequence primarily of decisions made by Nationalist voters (granted, in a context which had been partially created by Blair and his predecessors).

    Blair did not choose to make either the DUP or SF the biggest party; the voters did that. But he generally knew how to cut his cloth according to his means.

  • Ben Cochrane – I have located the document at – I see what you mean!

  • Ben Cochrane

    Nicholas, it’s the fact that he made such a fuss about the document in the first place and made it sound like the Holy Grail of problem solving!


  • Alias

    “In fairness to Blair, he was compelled to accept the necessity of bringing the DUP on board by the electorate, not the other way round.”

    That is how it was presented out of necessity. It wouldn’t be seen by the public to be much of a democratic settlement where the British government was seen to be manipulating the outcome of an election to its regional assemblies.

    Instead, they set up a sequence of side deals with the DUP and the Shinners where the public were led to see that they should support the ‘hardliners’ on their side because if they didn’t then the government would give concessions to the hardliners on the other side, and electing weak moderates wouldn’t stop the dismal practice. Like Pavlov and his dog, the public associated hardliners with rewards for their tribe and electric shocks for the other tribe.

    Although, in regard to the Shinners, they did later try to claim that it was their strategy to manipulate the democratic process by shafting the UUP over the decommissioning issue with the express purpose being to form a ‘government’ with the DUP by making it the largest unionist party when, it reality, they were just Blair’s puppets.

  • RyanAdams

    “80 seats in a new reduced assembly”

    Not going to happen Alex. SF won’t agree to it.

  • SF won’t agree to it.

    Nor, if they are elected, will they take seats on Councils or at the Dail or at Stormont.
    As for meeting an English monarch let alone shaking her hand, fuggedit.

  • Alias,

    The DUP overtook the UUP electorally while Blair still favoured the latter. The 2003 Assembly election was delayed by seven months for the convenience of Trimble (and he still lost). It’s simply not correct to assert that the DUP’s ascendancy was engineered by the British government, which had invested much more energy and political capital in the futile task of saving Trimble.

    Of course, once election results made it clear that the DUP were crucial to any deal, the sweeteners etc were given. But don’t confuse cause and effect!

  • Comrade Stalin


    Exactly my thoughts, Nesbitt’s insistence around secrecy suggested there was some sort of a leap forward being proposed. Disappointing, even considering the source.

  • RyanAdams


    They would have to get a major concession for such agreement, and frankly its not too high on the DUP’s agenda either. Dropping from six to five under the new boundaries would hurt them as much as smaller parties.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Indeed. In SF’s case reducing the number of MLAs hits the party straight in the pocket. Not a good thing given that it now has a number of Westminster MP mouths to feed.

    I was going to query if cutting 18 MLAs as mandated by the boundary review was going to go ahead or not, but I see that section 33 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is pretty clear – the Westminster constituencies define the boundaries, and there are six seats.

  • alex gray

    Yes it’s 16 x 5 = 80 or 16 x 6 = 96 and I think the public mood is for 80 and definitely not 96 which is only 12 below present level. Even 80 is still way ahead of representation levels in Wales and Scotland. All this stuff about committee servicing is nonsense. Fewer departments = fewer committees and smaller committees. If we reduce departments by a third down to 8 then why not reduce Assembly by a third down to 72 ? 80 seems a reasonable compromise in this light. 80 favours bigger parties it is true but then smaller parties are imploding anyway.

  • Given that virtually every Party at the last election had almost idenitical election literature (bar the colours) perhaps not having policy is hardly something particular to the UUP. The problem is then that a Party is judged almost entirely by virtue of its strength at the polls – up or down.

    When things are good that is fine. However, as the recent troubles with Ken showed, a Party which is trying to recover poll position without a policy framework that would define their purpose or role then it is difficult to be disciplined when no-one really ‘knows the rules’. What are the parameters. The Stalinist hierarchy of SF works for it, but the UUP remains a broad confederation of local associations with dominant local figures. Centralisation has never been a strong suit of the UUP. Personality is not enough to keep that together. Whether Mike Nesbitt has the political depth to create the glue we’ll have to wait and see.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think the committee thing is bollocks as well, but for different reasons. Our MLAs waste the two days they do sit doing nothing useful. We’re well over a full year into the term and there’s still not a single shred of new legislation.

  • Mick Fealty

    Sorry for the delay in posting this… it slipped through the net..