The UUP suffer from the same problem as their larger rival: there’s a tension between the leader’s more moderate language and the more traditional and hard line rhetoric of other elected representatives.
Here’s a portion from Mike Nesbitt’s speech as party leader:
[Mike Nesbitt] I say this to the pro-Union community: It is time to get on the front foot. Be confident. But be generous too. I am not the sort of Unionist who feels threatened by an Irish Tricolour. I subscribe to the paraphrase of what the great Ulster poet, John Hewitt, once said about being an Ulsterman, an Irishman, British and European.
Ulsterman, Irishman, British and European. It’s a much more complicated, but honest world view than the old orange or green, protestant or catholic. It is where I am.
I am British – but I do not want to miss out on the Irishness within me – the sort of Irishness which means I think very unchristian thoughts about the England rugby team when they are in Dublin!
Earlier in the day, forty five minutes of the conference had been allocated to a debate on RPA. Proposing the motion (that was against the 11 council model), Cllr Trevor Wilson questioned the reports being used to justify the change and said that the new model would share out super councils amongst the DUP and Sinn Fein. (About five minutes of contributions weren’t recorded.)
Ald Michael Henderson explained that the RPA’s “spend to save” model meant the savings would be made over twenty years.
Sure most of us will be dead!
An unfortunate remark given the care organisers had taken to place some youthful voices on the stage. Many councillors got up to speak against the current RPA proposals.
Tom Elliott wound up the debate – both in terms of closing it and upping the emotion and fear factor – with a speech that played the sectarian joker card that some unionists (and nationalists) seem to carry to shift any waverers over the finish line. See how this compares with Mike Nesbitt’s remarks above.
The Ulster Unionist Party acknowledges that local government does need to be reformed … and it was the Ulster Unionist Party that started this process …
This is just a grubby DUP/Sinn Fein carve-up. I can’t put it any simpler. We heard other speakers explain how the 15 model came about … in clear terms however you look at it is a carve-up. Council reform will cost some money. The estimates of the PWC reports said it’ll cost £118 million. Information is suggesting that it could cost actually upwards and double of that.
Who will pay for it? You and me the ratepayer will pay for it.
Let us just look at some of those carve-ups … Three council areas – Fermanagh/Omagh, Londonderry/Strabane and the Mid-Ulster – I am pretty sure that those three will be dominated by Sinn Fein. It is more than likely they will have overall control of those three council areas. What does that mean for unionism in general? Let alone Ulster Unionism? What does that mean for delivering cross-border bodies and institutions? … this will give them more power to do that. It’s almost a repartition of Northern Ireland. That’s what we’re looking at. That’s what we’re facing.
Suddenly the rational arguments about cost and service delivery went out the window and it was brought back to the emotional issue of a flag.
… I believe the biggest sin in this reform is how Belfast is being treated for unionism. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity to ensure that the Union flag would fly on Belfast City Hall 365 days. But is that going to happen? No. And let me tell you people of Belfast, taking the flag down off Belfast City Hall is only the start of it. Just wait to you see what it is like in ten years time, in fifteen years time. They will start a process. We’ve been through this in Fermanagh. Strabane have been through it. Londonderry have been through it.
Someone’s very scared of ‘the other’. Tom Elliott adopted the language of ‘they’ and ‘their’.
They start a process of neutralisation – “we want this a neutral space” – but then what comes next? Once they get it neutral they start imposing their dictatorial issues. They will start imposing their Irish language. They will start imposing their Sinn Fein republican agenda onto everyone.
The Haass talks team will have a field day with Tom Elliott’s analysis of ‘them’.
It’s an expression of fear that is very unhelpful; yet the underlying fear needs to be addressed and stamped out. Parties need to agree both to stop demonising each other and to put in place a settlement in which they guarantee not to allow one cultural expression to dominate all others.
It’s also at odds with Mike Nesbitt’s later call to be “on the front foot”, “confident” and “generous”.
Back to Tom Elliott and RPA …
That is what this reform of public administration is going to do. It is unfortunate that the Ulster Unionist Party were not in a position to follow this through and carry it forward. But the voters have spoken over the last few elections. They made their decision and I am confident that those voters will see how this needs to change. How not only in the west of the province we need support, how the unionist people of the west of the province need support, but also how the unionist people of Belfast need support.
The UUP’s nineteen councillors in Armagh, Craigavon, Lisburn and Newry & Mourne won’t thank Tom Elliott for his next comment:
I know that Lisburn and Newry and indeed Armagh and Craigavon are referred to as cities. But to me the two cities of Northern Ireland is still Belfast and Londonderry. And just remember when this reform of public administration goes through the two capital cities of Northern Ireland will be republican. What message is that sending out for the unionist people of Northern Ireland?
Note that the UUP have three councillors in Belfast, and just one on Derry City Council.
Amongst other sessions on Friday afternoon, party delegates were treated to a communications workshop from Billy Dixon, described by Tom Elliott as “a motivator” who had suggested that the party needed to send out its message in “three simple words”.
I’m sorry but I’ve two sets of three words. The first one is STM. Stop This Mess. And the second one is VUU. Vote Ulster Unionist to stop it.
His advice is too little too late given the how far down the line RPA has come and the UUP’s diminishing influence.
The motion opposing the current RPA model was passed unanimously. Not a single hand in the hall went up against it.
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.