In an article yesterday I alluded to some of the challenges which face the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists electoral force, come the autumn. The News Letter reports that the candidate selection procedure for Westminster elections is ‘under way’ (a process which represents one of the immediate obstacles UCUNF must surmount).
A poll is expected next spring and the alliance must strive to win seats for Northern Ireland in Britain’s next government and, just as importantly, ensure that the arrangement fields a stable of candidates reflecting its stated values and ethos.
After the next Assembly election it is intended that dual mandates be consigned to the past, so the Ulster Unionist Party must nominate, predominately, from outside its group of MLAs. If sitting Assembly Members do wish to stand, they will do so on the understanding that they must forfeit their Stormont seats in 2011, should their Westminster campaigns be successful.
How the party chooses to divide the talent available to it over two parliaments will be a tricky tactical conundrum, but it is likely that unfamiliar names will be blooded at the general election.
This offers an opportunity to field candidates genuinely attuned to the type of inclusive politics which the new force aspires to represent. Of course, each of the eighteen hopefuls who will compete for Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats must be endorsed by both the Tories and the UUP in the forthcoming election. A few of that number are likely to be drawn from the local Conservatives.
It is important that both parties and their constituency apparatuses focus most closely on the qualities of each prospective candidate, rather than which of the two organisations they happen to belong to.
This will be a genuine test of the new relationship and it is crucially important that both parties coalesce into a united and consistent election fighting force, solidly behind eighteen agreed candidates. The type of squabbling which marked the arrangement’s launch could turn the Westminster campaign into a farce.
From the UUP’s perspective, it must decide whether it truly has the will to make itself relevant again. Otherwise there is real danger it could become a fractious, incoherent, widely ignored rump.
The alternatives really are constructive, pan-UK unionism and oblivion. I’m not sure whether the starkness of that choice has been properly absorbed by the party and its leaders yet. It is an exciting time, but it is also a perilous time for Ulster Unionists.