What does the future hold for the UUP?

Craig Harrison writes for us about his views of the UUP conference and its future

Anyone who was near the recent UUP conference will have gotten the distinct impression that this is a party in a confident mood.

This confidence has its roots in the perceived vindication brought with the independent assessment of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, and a renewed self-assurance that leaving the Stormont Executive was the right thing to do.

If the buzz around the room wasn’t a subtle enough hint of this, UUP chairman Reg Empey articulated it outright in his speech, predicting that the next elections would witness the best UUP performance for some time.

This is a prediction shared, to some extent, by those beyond the party membership, with some political commentators speculating that if there was an election soon, the UUP would make notable gains.

It is more than a little odd, to say the least, that this newly invigorated UUP would emerge almost as a direct result of a horrid few months in Northern Irish politics. But regardless of how we’ve gotten here, the UUP is moving ahead with its chest puffed out.

Particularly, Mike Nesbitt is enjoying perhaps some of the most thorough backing of his time at the helm. During the conference, local polling company Lucid Talk surveyed a sample of the party’s membership, the results of which were published in the Belfast Telegraph. This showed that 90% of those polled rated Nesbitt’s leadership with the highest score available, while an even greater majority stated their belief that going into opposition was the right thing to do.

So the UUP is undoubtedly on a high, but the important question is whether this can be transferred into genuine electoral and political gain.

Many may find it hard to disagree with the predication that, if an election were held next week, the UUP would make some ground on the DUP. The fact is, however, that DUP Ministers returning permanently to office has made it appear less likely that we’re heading toward an early election.

Issues over welfare reform are of course still outstanding, but Peter Robinson putting his Ministers back behind their desks has added a degree of solidity to the political climate that many – but perhaps not the UUP – will be grateful for.

As long as the DUP Ministers remained absent, the UUP could continue to berate them for what most of the Assembly had labelled dereliction of duty. But with DUP Ministers back in post, their unionist counterparts now face the prospect of a degree of normalization returning in the run up to May 2016, during which public opinion will – to some extent at least – lose focus on the DUP’s perceived failings.

It’s a very old cliché, but a week is a long time in politics, and a few months even longer still. The extreme degree of unpredictability scare this commentator away from trying to make any firm guesses for what the future holds. All we can be certain of now is that the UUP are riding on a wave of backing, and the party will do its best to ensure that this is turned into electoral results, whenever the time may be.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.