After #GE2015… The UUP reborn, or just lucky?

Guess what, there’s another UUP success that I didn’t see coming. In my mind, though in retrospect it was a flawed form of thinking, I honestly thought South Antrim would fall to the party quicker than Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

In fact they won both, and nearly took Upper Bann.

Despite my own trepidation last year, if the Unionist pact played to anyone’s strength it was the UUP rather than the DUP. FST came in for them at a relative canter, reflecting perhaps the relative strength of the party in the border areas.

The precipitous actions of the Electoral Office, which forced voters in the Moygashel area to travel in order to cast their votes may have been one of several motivators.

Elsewhere the gains were slow but in contrast with the SDLP, inexorably upwards. In their third target area of Upper Bann the sitting DUP MP has been put on notice that he could lose his seat next time around, and possibly to a woman.

Mike Nesbitt came in from tv, with little lived experience of politics. If he has achieved one thing above all others it is that he has calmed the party right down and got some of it’s people to focus on the basics again, ie winning voters over.

Despite his face-off with Ken McGuinness over his remarks in the House of Lords, Nesbitt appears to adopted a more laissez faire approach to party management which is happy to see a dyed in the wool, red-white and blue politician like Tom Elliott win seats in the west, whilst the more soft spoken liberal-ish Danny Kinahan wins in the east.

The odd thing about the UUP is just how distributed its successes and failures are. Roy Beggs in East Antrim appears to have been squeezed both by Alliance, and possibly UKIP.

But on the whole Nesbitt has done well to have calmed the ship, by letting each candidate choose their own separate pitches to their local audiences.

The fillip to the party whose members probably feel most aligned to Westminster as an institution and mainland Great Britain was evident in the victory speeches of Elliott and Kinahan.

But as the party builds in its strongholds in the south and west of Northern Ireland, the biggest and toughest task remains how to move forward from there, and in particular, how to move back convincingly back into Belfast where more and more that Goldilocks of NI politics the Alliance Party is making itself at home with some of their former voters.

One truism that holds for power on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland is that you cannot hope to hold power if you only hold the city or the country. And if you are lucky enough to to hold both, it is a terrible struggle to keep them together.

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  • Granni Trixie

    Their pact will long be a spectre linking them to the DUP and increase difficulties in distinguishing themselves from DUP.

  • Gopher

    Big mistake not to contest North Down which has likely surrendered their Aseembly seat and any hope of a second to UKIP and Conservatives. Where they were up against a strong candidate they achieved nothing of note. Their vote all but dissappeared in Strangford and South Belfast, declined in Lagan Valley, East Londonderry and East Antrim and only steadied outside of the unionist contested seats of Upper Bann and South Antrim.

    McCrea, noboby like overt fundies and Wells insured he would be gone if he was not already. Mike if he has sense has won a better negoiating position for a combined unionist party. Peter if he has sense will offer generous terms and if both achieve sense together they will merge and bring their party constitution and ethos to the 21st century.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Looks like there is an MLA in East Belfast (Safe with Vote Base) and South Belfast (With Transfers) in next years Assembly Elections 2016 for the UUP. As far as the city goes the UUP should be happy with that return and keep out off the OK Corral Stuff which Belfast will experience over the next 5 years. Much easier to develop and progress the party in the country during this period !

  • mjh

    It’s certainly not down to luck, Mick.

    Nesbitt certainly got off to a very bad start, culminating with that Ken McGuinness fiasco which demonstrated a complete lack of forward thinking. But he learnt exceedingly well from his mistakes. Since then he has followed a consistent strategy and has also been clever tactically. Yes he had some luck – he had no hand in the implosion of NI21 or the Jim Wells debacle – but he created the conditions in which his party would benefit from the bad luck or mistakes of others.

    He also appears to have worked hard on the motivation of his party representatives, as the high proportion of sitting councillors re-contesting their seats last year suggests.

    As a result, and for the first time, he now has two precious commodities which party leaders salivate over – strategic options for his party and political capital to use within it.

    The party faces major challenges in the Assembly elections, as Gopher set out above. But while the Westminster figures suggest potential for two losses versus the 16 they won last time, there is also potential for up to three gains – with the most likely outcome being16 again (although not all the same ones).

    For this reason he is likely to be cautious in exercising his options and spending his capital until the Assembly elections are out of the way.

    So he will continue to keep close enough to Peter Robinson to leave no room for the DUP leader to handle a blade. But he will also look for opportunities to suggest, however subtly, that the UUP is not the DUP. The win in FST, in particular, gives him more room for that sort of manoeuvre.

    During the Assembly campaign he may well run on a programme of change, to exploit the dissatisfaction with the dysfunction of the Executive. The party will probably avoid specific proposals to prevent getting ensnared in detail, leaving him free after the election to decide whether to go into opposition. The two Westminster seats would more than make up for the loss of one Executive place.

    As a long-shot it might be worth keeping half an eye on North Down. On the face of it standing down there should be a mistake. But if the Lady does not intend to stand again in five years time who knows what nods and winks may have been exchanged which gave her a free run against the DUP? Three Westminster MP’s anyone?

  • kensei

    Are you seriously ignoring the role of the pact in Fermanagh and South Tyrone? And 600 votes is a canter?

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Winning two seats was indeed a good result for the UUP. But it is early days yet to consider them as being out of the woods. Vote share was up by a measly 0.8%, entirely because of the pact – Rodney Connor’s vote in 2010 was more than 3% of the total vote in Northern Ireland.

    I do see likely Assembly gains on the basis of last week’s performance. A second seat in South Antrim and another in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, both gained from the DUP; and the likely recuperation of David McClarty’s seat in East Londonderry. On the other hand, South Belfast, Strangford and North Down all look vulnerable. A surge from UKIP will hit the UUP as badly as the DUP. There may have been local factors in South Belfast last week, with two other parties running ex-UUP candidates, but I would see a serious cause for concern there.

    Still, at least there is something to work on, and presumably the two new MLas who will take Elliott and Kinahan’s places will start working on it quickly.

  • Colin Lamont

    I think he’s making the slightly ironic point that 600 compared to a one vote majority is something of a landslide for this constituency!

  • Colin Lamont

    Was there any evidence that turnout in Moygashel was up due to the closing of the local station Mick? Ironically, the closure decision seems to have precipitated another protest on election day, this time with voters walking in groups of 20 to Dungannon to cast their vote. When I saw this that’s when I felt Tom was going to win.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Belfast Telegraph doesn’t even recognise they exist!

  • Kevin Breslin

    Seems to be the case. Tom Elliot DUP. BelTel might be yearning for a 10/11 member United unionist party called the DUP, ruled like the DUP.

  • Granni Trixie

    I do not see how it is in Hermans gift to pass on her seat to any party and, from personal knowledge of her, I would be surprised if she had been involved in nods and winks where she ‘owed’ the UUP anything. They stood aside for their own reasons and looks like the DUP pulled a fast one on them by signing up at the last minute,presumably with next years Assembly elections in mind.

  • Robin Keogh

    I think with the UUP you have to give credit where it is due. Remember they were once the monolith of Ulster politics, losing that poition must have felt like been hit by a train. Winning the two seats was a great achievement but the new boundaries could see them lose FST next time out. Upper bann looks good for them as a real possibility as long as nationalist turnout stays on the floor. If they can hold the seats they have in next years ass elections or maybe add one or two, in the face of the UKIP and TUV challenge, it will be a good days work. Nesbitt has done well.

  • Pete

    They had a pact in 2010 and still lost by 4 votes.

  • mjh

    Of course no one can gift their seat. I probably did not make my point clearly. What I intended to suggest is that she might re-join the UUP at some point before the next Westminster election.

    There would be nothing to prevent her. She surely would have as much moral right to do so as she had to leave the party in the first place. The cause of her leaving the party is no longer a live issue, and if she were open to consider re-joining the party under certain conditions it would have been politically inept of her to conceal that from the UUP prior to the election.

    However, it is pure speculation on my part.

  • Granni Trixie

    As somebody else recently said, “I’ll eat my hat” should Lady H rejoin UUP. She is not really a team player and looks like she enjoys “independent” status.
    More importantly she has demonstrated that she can win without a party machine behind her. With UUP having closer links to DUP there is even less chance she would rejoin UUP.

  • Michael Lon

    Turnout in the Moygashel ward was up around 15-20% points from 2014 Council Elections, based on polling day turnout at 10pm.

  • Robin Keogh

    They had an agreed candidate in 2010, less known and not party affiliated

  • Robin Keogh

    Ya she has a bit of a disdain for the DUP so I cant imagine her being over joyed by the pact

  • Robin Keogh

    I agree, I think despite previous views, in general the pact went down well with Unionist voters and maybe the UUP will have emerged kick started ready for a good fight in the ass elections

  • Colin Lamont

    Thanks Michael, do you have the final % figure out of interest? I heard that turnout in some Fermanagh areas was very high but heard nothing from the Tyrone end.

  • Colin Lamont

    I actually think Fermanagh will stay as now. The DUP have two big hitters from both distinct parts of the constituency. With Elliott gone they seem short of a well known figure in this seat never mind two. South Antrim perhaps, but the party’s vote is always vastly inflated at Westminster elections due to tactical voting.
    Besides they face tough defences in a number of other seats; namely South Down, Strangford and South Belfast.

  • Colin Lamont

    The UUP undoubtedly did well all considered. However both of these seats could just as easily be lost next time, considering the fine margins in both.

  • Colin Lamont

    A good election for unionism could just have easily been a phenomenal one had South Belfast been gained. I think they missed the boat here as McDonnell was ripe for the taking. My understanding is that the UUP refused standing aside in Upper Bann therefore the DUP refused to do so in South Belfast. Could this have been the Ulster Unionists gateway to reestablishing themselves in the capital which you alluded to Mick?

  • Nicholas Whyte

    The UUP were ahead in FST in both 2011 and 2014 local elections, so I think there must be some residual strength there. My sense was that their own 2011 Assembly campaign did them no favours by flagging up the possibility of Martin McGuinness as First Minister, which surely incentivised floating Unionists to vote DUP. If they choose different ground to fight on next year, they may do better.

  • Gopher

    There is a danger looking too far ahead, I’m not sure the assembly will survive past the summer recess without the Stormont House Agreement. The DUP cannot take the assembly to the electorate without that deal, it would be political suicide. They dont have the option of Alliance and UUP to stand on a platform of opposition to mitigate the electorate lashing out. That leaves the DUP with 8 and UUP with 2 Westminister seats If the DUP have not realiased it already pulling the plug after that Westminister election puts every other party in a vacum. and it will be a long 5 years before the UUP can think of a third seat. With two seats the UUP will not be near the centre of negoiations post collapse DUP will be front and centre. Nope it is now time for Peter and Mike to thrash out the new unionist party in the post assembly era. 10 Westminster seats in this parliament will not be ignored.

  • Michael Lon

    Colin, I believe turnout in Moygashel was around 72%, although I can’t remember the exact figure. Not too sure about other wards in South Tyrone, I think Killyman was also around 70% and the turnout around Dungannon town was lower around 60%, I may be mistaken. Some other turnout figures which may be of interest in Fermanagh, Garrison – 76%, Lisbellaw – 80ish%, Ballinamallard 80%, Rosslea 84%, Kesh 72%, and Enniskillen 63%

  • I suspect there is a large psychological factor at play. A lot of the DUP vote is not a core vote. A lot of voters would happily switch to the UUP if they looked like they could start winning again. If they fielded a strong set of candidates, i don’t see why they couldn’t take Upper Bann next time, and start to narrow the gap in places like Lagan valley, North Antrim and East Antrim. Additionally, I know an awful lot of younger Unionists, with a more liberal outlook who are looking for a party to vote for in North Antrim, and the primary beneficiaries have been Alliance. The UUP would quite easily be able to hoover these voters up with ta bit of clever PR.

  • Colin Lamont

    Very interesting thanks again. I was reading an article in the Tyrone Courier last night which stated Moygashel having an incredible 83% turnout, with some other areas of Dungannon struggling to break 50%.
    Also for interest, a friend from Fermanagh told me that Maguiresbridge, Brookeborough, Donagh and Newtownbutler also were all above 80%.
    Ironically it seems that Gildernew may have lost the turnout battle in her home patch of South Tyrone rather than her main opponent’s Fermanagh.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Actually I think it makes more sense in the UUP’s case not to contest seats which they have no hope of winning, and North Down is certainly one of them.

    The logic of pacts and so on is that the overriding concern is to ensure that a unionist – any unionist – holds any seat where there is a prospect of a non-unionist being elected. To follow that logic through to its obvious conclusion means that unionists should stop challenging each other in the seats that they hold and save their campaigning resources for marginal seats. This essentially means a return to the pre-1992 position where certain seats become UUP strongholds, and others DUP strongholds, and they stay that way.

  • Zeno

    I’m not so sure ,Danny Kinahan being elected was a positive sign for the UUP.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    mjh, I’ve no idea what strategy you are perceiving here or what Nesbitt has brought to the campaign. His signature move – the pact – wasn’t a strategy, it was a gamble (and ironically his leadership came on the back of his predecessor being forced out of the role by allegations that he was in talks with the DUP). It absolutely is luck that it paid off, but with slim margins in both constituencies I don’t see how anyone can claim that this was all planned. Had the gamble gone wrong, Nesbitt would now be toast.

    What’s happening is UUP voters who had switched to the DUP in the past decade returning, to some extent, to the fold. That isn’t because of some sort of Nesbitt genius activity, but the rather more simple explanation that unionist voters are starting to get a bit tired of the DUP’s swaggering chauvinism and the whiff of corruption that they seem to carry with them in office.

    After this election I’m still left not understanding why the UUP exist. The only thing that I am clear about is that they think that having unionist representatives overrides any other concerns; and if they think that then why not simply merge with the DUP ?

  • mjh

    The key elements of the strategy Nesbitt has followed for the last two and a half years have been:

    1) Position the party closely alongside the DUP. So closely, in fact, as to prevent the DUP from employing the tactics which for half a century had enabled it to suck votes from the UUP’s base.

    2) Seek electoral pacts. Initially to protect the UUP’s European seat, and subsequently to enable the party to return to Westminster.

    I agree that there was an element of a gamble in the actual deal which he struck. It did not give the UUP a guaranteed seat and thus risked giving advantage to the DUP with no return for the UUP. We are not in a position to know what information he was receiving from FST and therefore cannot know how big a risk he believed he was taking. But he stuck with his strategy, took the risk and won.

    And when was the last time a UUP leader won ground back off the DUP?

  • Catcher in the Rye


    On (1) I don’t think Mike Nesbitt sat down with the senior party types and said “I know lads, we need to get close to the DUP, so this will be our plan for two years”. Instead I think he simply answered and came running every time Robinson got on the phone. He turned up at loyalist flag protests, such as the one in Carrick, and made a lot of stupid comments to the press.

    And on (2) the pacts were a DUP innovation, and strategically, they meet the DUP’s longer term objective of wiping out the UUP. The UUP is now pretty much gone in Belfast.

    It was the DUP who mischievously circulated the rumour that they might run two candidates in Europe which spooked the UUP into entering pact talks with them. The DUP continued to intimidate the UUP with threats that if they stood in North or East Belfast they, not the DUP, would get the blame for handing seats to nationalists. The whole time it was Nesbitt who was on the back foot, having to justify the pacts in terms of maximizing unionist seats, even though both leaders clearly preferred to see Alasdair McDonnell re-elected to South Belfast instead of a unionist.

    So no, I don’t think Nesbitt can take the credit for any of this. It’s working out very well on his watch, but I’m pretty sure it would have turned out the same had the UUP elected a dead sheep to run their party.

  • mjh


    I think Nesbitt consciously decided to adopt a strategy to stick close to the DUP. You think he fell into it due to weakness and stupidity. I would only suggest that a weak and stupid leader would have had difficulty keeping himself and his party to a consistent line for over two years.

    Whichever it worked.

    You see the DUP as driving the pact policy, dragging a reluctant Nesbitt into their web, as part of their strategy for wiping out the UUP. I see Nesbitt as pursuing a pact strategy since at least autumn 2012 – as was made obvious when he sacked John McCallister as Deputy Leader after the later made a speech criticising the idea. Indeed Alex Kane claimed in February 2013 that Nesbitt had been planning an electoral pact from the moment he was elected leader.
    (Although I would put it a little later than Kane based on Nesbitt’s strong statement against pacts after becoming leader.)

    Nesbitt appeared initially more positive than the DUP to the idea of a pact for the Mid-Ulster by election in 2013, and during that campaign he made it clear he saw it as experiment with implications for the future.

    He formally proposed a pact before and during his party’s conference in October 2014.

    In fact it was the DUP which all along appeared much more lukewarm on the idea. This allowed Nesbitt to look good with those unionist voters who wanted a pact.

    I can’t see how the pact could have been part of a DUP strategy to wipe out the UUP. If so it was a spectacular failure.

    It appears it was only when the DUP realised that they could not take East Belfast on their own that they decided to go along with it.

  • Colin Lamont

    I don’t see what exactly the UUP were ‘risking’ by entering the pact. They essentially got something for nothing which, in my book, is a rather good deal. To get a free run in pretty much their strongest constituency required only stepping aside in two seats they had no chance in anyway and one mla of out 12.

  • mjh

    What did the UUP risk? Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a different outcome to the election following the pact.

    First we must take South Antrim out of the mix. No one in the UUP could have been confident two months ago of winning that, so we will imagine that it stayed DUP.

    In our alternative universe every other result was the same – except FST which SF won by 400 votes.

    In the contest between the UUP and DUP where does the party stand now?

    Well it has given the DUP a win in East Belfast which it would not have had otherwise. The DUP are now confirmed as unionism’s perennial winners and the UUP as their inevitable losers.

    The bounce back the UUP made in the Council Elections is now forgotten. The UUP are back on the long slide towards eventual oblivion.

    In East Belfast their absence from the contest has allowed their party machine to wither further and some of the voters they “lent” to the DUP are lost forever. The Assembly seat which looked imperilled in 2011 now looks lost along with them.

    In FST, where their advance at the Council Elections had seemed to hold out the prospect of taking a second Assembly seat from the DUP, the swing voters have concluded that it is best to stick with the DUP.

    A demoralised UUP turns in on itself. There are calls for the leader to go and for a new sense of direction. But there is no obvious alternative leader and a damaging public dog fight breaks out between those who want Nesbitt to go and those who want him to stay on in order to prevent someone worse getting the job. It proves impossible to agree on what the party direction should be, so a period of increasingly bitter squabbling is followed by an uneasy compromise to paper over the cracks. No one is really happy with this, the new leader lacks authority and so cannot impose discipline. Over time the squabbles start to re-emerge.

    Meanwhile Peter Robinson has a new spring in his step and is issuing invitations to UUP voters and members to join him in the one party which can unite to save unionism.

  • Granni Trixie

    How can you claim with such certainty that Eb is in the bag for UUP at Assembley elections as surely they diminished their prospects by not standing a candidate in Wesrminster election. At last Assembly election didn’t Trevor Ringland get around 7K votes for UUP and he defected to Conservatives. Some of his votes at least will have gone to Naomi and other candidates and I think it’s taking the electorate for granted to assume voters will return to UUP.

  • Granni Trixie

    They risked being indistinguishable from the DUP – you know, a homophobic,anti Muslim, no catholic about the place kind of identity. That kind of thing. Turns some voters off.

  • tmitch57

    Both the SDLP and the UUP are facing the same basic problem. They are confronted with more successful rivals who have combined a move toward the more moderate center with much more dynamic electioneering. Both the older generation of the SDLP and the UUP took their position as the mainstream party in their respective communities for granted. They were both shocked by the loss of their communal hegemony and have yet to recover. David Trimble should have taken a lesson from what the Shinners did to the SDLP between 1998 and 2001, but he probably never expected the DUP under Paisley to make peace with power sharing with Republicans. The UUP should send its bright young men to study modern electoral techniques with the Tories in England. They might also send a few to the States to study with the GOP. The SDLP should send its bright young men and women south to study with FG and Irish Labour. They should also send some to the States to study with the Democratic Party. But the UUP should also find a few academics from the Republic and NI to train them on the intricacies of the PR-STV franchise and how it affects electoral strategy in a multiparty environment. In the long run I still see the SDLP as being more viable than the UUP, as the former can offer a real ideological choice to the voter and the latter cannot.