When UUP members elected a new party leader at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall last week, they chose time-honoured Ulster values over the pluralist sensibilities and media savvy of modern politics. Tom Elliott may be younger than his opponent Basil McCrea, but the delegates, overwhelmingly elderly and male, saw a man in their own image nonetheless.
Elliott is a genial Fermanagh farmer of Orange stock, who represents a return to some old fashioned certainties for the UUP. All the airy talk of normalising politics and building pan-UK unionism, which preceded the last election, is now at an end. UCUNF, the new leader says, is dead, deceased, an ex electoral pact.
Rather than develop a ‘big idea’ to replace it, Elliott intends first to shore up the UUP’s existing support, and then to eat into the soft underbelly of the DUP vote, which Ulster Unionists still consider theirs by right. The party believes that a doughty unionist Everyman is needed to oversee this project and if he lacks torrential eloquence, far from proving a handicap, it might actually endear him to voters.
Tom Elliott fits the description and the theory perfectly, but his down to earth persona is at once a strength and a weakness. Can he really hope to inspire the UUP and capture the public’s attention in a media age? Can he even hold together a divided and demoralised party, after a leadership battle which exposed its fault-lines to the world?I highlight the Ringland affair, which suggests that the new leader will have his work cut out. And I observe that Elliott must find a way to reconcile the younger element, who supported McCrea, to his leadership.
They are the generation which UCUNF brought to prominence and they share a conviction that the old guard’s ham-fisted approach to the Conservative link-up contributed to its failure. Having acquired some experience at the frontline, it’s unlikely they’ll want to take a back seat under Tom Elliott. He must find a way to harness their energies or face internal disaffection.
That means giving the DUP a wide berth. Elliott rubbished the idea of ’unionist unity’ during his leadership bid, but defined the concept in deliberately narrow terms. He spoke about ’cooperation’ with other parties and, conspicuously, didn’t rule out coordinating unionist Assembly election candidates with the DUP.
If such an arrangement does not offend the principles of the new generation of UUP activists, it will certainly frustrate their electoral ambitions. Ulster Unionists would necessarily be junior partners in any deal with the DUP, and that won’t be allowed happen, nor will the party forfeit the moral high ground over its rival, without an almighty internal struggle.
For all the emphasis which Elliott’s supporters put on his ability to unite the party, a split is possible. Ringland could be the first, but if others follow, they will surely seek another vehicle for their political aspirations.
The idea of secular, pluralist unionism strikes a chord with only a limited number of voters, but at the moment most of them support the UUP. Many more unionists are at least sympathetic to the idea that Northern Ireland should play a central role in UK politics, even if they weren’t prepared to vote for UCUNF on its first electoral outing.
If a new party espousing such policies were to emerge, it could spell disaster for a rump UUP. Similarly, if the Northern Ireland Conservatives, who are quietly and steadily building up their presence at constituency level, attract high profile defectors, it could give the Tories the local identity they crave and prove more than a nuisance for Tom Elliott.
Whoever emerged as Ulster Unionist leader, it was inevitable that the party would face a critical period in its history. A majority of members trust Elliott to keep a steady hand on the tiller. If he navigates the good ship UUP to calmer waters relatively unscathed it will be an achievement. More likely it will perish on the jagged rocks of an internal split, or simply drift quietly into political irrelevance.