Just days after Tom Elliott announced he would be stepping down from the helm of the Ulster Unionist Party, the candidates to replace him are beginning to make themselves known, with at least two confirmed runners and riders so far with two differing visions for the party.
Outlining his intention to run this morning, the party’s current deputy leader, John McCallister, has declared himself to be an “unashamed liberal progressive unionist”, pledging that if elected the UUP would not be allowed to be sucked up by the DUP and that the party would come out of government and instead form an opposition.
It comes as the party’s sole minister in the power sharing executive, regional development minister Danny Kennedy, also confirmed his intention to throw his hat into the ring, leading to what looks set to be an intriguing battle over the very future and soul of the party.
As the BBC’s Northern Ireland political editor, Mark Devenport, explains:
“With Mr Kennedy keen on unionist co-operation, and Mr McCallister forthright in his intention to go into opposition, the battle lines in this contest are clear for all to see.”
The developments come amidst a mounting degree of advice for both the party and whoever enjoys the dubious honour of being crowned leader.
In an interview with the Newsletter published on Sunday outgoing leader Tom Elliott issued a stark warning to his party that it needed to have greater respect for its new leader, slamming what he dubbed the “the small and vociferous element within the Assembly group who told lies to journalists about my leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party”.
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• Preview 2012 – Northern Ireland 30 Dec 2011
• UUP renew calls for opposition at Stormont 25 Oct 2011
Writing in the Newsletter, meanwhile, the party’s former director of communications, Alex Kane, has argued the only way the party can truly rebuild itself is by leaving government and moving to a period of opposition.
Kane wrote yesterday:
I noted in Saturday’s News Letter that Tom Elliott’s resignation had “left his successor enough time to repair and rebuild”. That said, you can only repair and rebuild when you fully understand the structural and foundation difficulties you face.
I also noted that the party needs “a clearly defined and easily understood role, relevance, identity, purpose and strategy”. Yet one thing strikes me as undeniable: the UUP will not be able to define and promote that role, relevance, identity, purpose and strategy while it remains in the Executive.
It cannot criticise any aspect of Executive policy while interviewers and fellow Executive members remain able to counter with, “well, why do you remain in it?” It cannot carve out a separate identity for itself while it is viewed as a very junior, lacking-in-clout partner within that Executive.
Let’s be clear: the Executive is not going to collapse if the UUP removes its sole minister: and the existence of a permanent veto for each side means that the absence of the UUP doesn’t represent a gain for republicanism.
While at the Belfast Telegraph, the question being posed is fairly simple: who would want to lead the UUP in its current state?
Outlining the difficulties that will face whoever takes over from Tom Elliott, an editorial in today’s paper notes:
Jim Molyneaux lasted for 16 years, David Trimble for 10, Reg Empey for five, and Tom Elliott for just 18 months. That fact alone tells you something about the present state of the UUP: namely, the fewer votes it gets, the shorter the period of office for the leader.
It also raises a question: why would anyone in their right mind want to lead the UUP? Tom Elliott’s resignation statement referred to “relentless” internal opposition from some party members, including lying to the media and briefing against him. That’s nothing new for the UUP.
It certainly happened to both Reg Empey and David Trimble and it will happen to whoever succeeds Tom Elliott. And it happens because the UUP remains a collection of cabals and factions. Indeed, some MLAs have accused Elliott of entrusting his own cabal to negotiate with the DUP, while the rest of the Assembly group and most of the party officers were none the wiser.
The factions remain much as they were in 2010, when Elliott defeated Basil McCrea.
Some want closer co-operation with the DUP; some want the party to push closer to David Cameron, fearful that a relaunch of the Northern Ireland Conservatives (due in the next few weeks) will cost them even more votes; some want the party to abandon the Executive and designate itself as the official Opposition; some want the party to stay in the Executive, arguing that a non-unionist would take their seat; and some don’t really care what policy is adopted – they just want the leadership to stick with it.
All of these factions are represented in the Assembly group and in the party’s executive committee: and they will still be there irrespective of who the nominal leader may be at the end of the month.