Monday, 13 September 2010

Desperate need for substance as leadership debate nears its final week.

Article now online.

In today's Belfast Telegraph I look at the fight to become UUP leader and argue that the party needs a battle based on policies, rather than personalities.

This is .... a critical leadership contest for the UUP, but it had been strangely sedate, until the contenders clashed publicly over the weekend.  Their disagreement arose over attitudes to the GAA and homosexuality, with McCrea accusing Elliott of intolerance.  It was an acrimonious spat which illustrates real differences in approach between the two men.    

Elliott may position himself as a consensus candidate, building a wide coalition of supporters from across the UUP.  Ultimately, however, the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA best represents the more traditional wing of the party and its values.  

Elliott claims backing from liberal figures, emphasising that he will not countenance a full merger with the DUP, but he is known to be broadly sympathetic to the concept of ‘unionist unity‘ and he has made scuppering Martin McGuinness‘s First Ministerial ambitions the central goal of his campaign.  The MLA is also heavily involved in the Orange Order and backed the process which saw a single unionist candidate contest the Westminster seat in Fermanagh South Tyrone.  

Elliott will appeal to rural UUP members who believe that the party is currently too preoccupied with constituencies in and around Belfast.  Ulster Unionist candidates claim more votes in constituencies with an urban sensibility, in the east of the province, but membership is concentrated in rural areas, particularly in Fermanagh.  

He hopes that will give him an edge over his Lisburn based rival, whose unionism has a decided metropolitan liberal tinge.  Basil McCrea is equipped with all the political skills a leader might need to be successful but, in the curious world of Ulster Unionism, that could be as much a handicap as an asset.   
The Lagan Valley MLA is an assured performer, with media savvy in spades and the ability to work a room.  He’s also prepared to reach beyond unionism‘s traditional boundaries, involving himself in a range of cross community initiatives.  

These are valuable qualities for a modern party leader, but older members, and the UUP has many older members, might find it easier to identify with a bluff Fermanagh farmer, whose milieu is the Orange Hall, rather than a slick politician, quite comfortable taking part in a Gay Pride debate or attending a GAA match.  

Perhaps unfairly, there is a perception that McCrea has not yet explained his core political beliefs, beyond tolerance and pluralism, to the unionist grassroots.  Last week he attempted to put ’meat on the bones’, announcing five leadership pledges at Belfast’s Merchant Hotel.  The MLA hopes that these undertakings, which include a promise to make Catriona Ruane’s education ministry a target portfolio for the UUP, kill the notion that he represents style over substance.  

McCrea is eager to stress that his message is business friendly but he expresses scepticism about the UUP’s Conservative link.  He is prepared to countenance cooperation between the two parties, but criticises an electoral pact as ill-conceived.  Elliott also talks about ending UCUNF while retaining a relationship of some sort.   

It is clear that the Conservative affiliation will not survive, in its present form, but the link is unavoidably at the top of the ’to do list’ for any new UUP leader.  Members and voters are entitled to ask for policy detail and genuine debate on this issue and others, alongside fine words and good intentions.  

With the finish line in sight McCrea will hope that his ’pledges’ give him a more concrete prospectus for leadership than his opponent.  It is certainly questionable whether Elliott can actually deliver on his aspiration to prevent a Sinn Féin First Minister, without first striking a deal with the DUP.  

The Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA is still a marginal favourite, but increasingly there are signs that McCrea is gaining momentum.  By the time votes are cast, the UUP’s most important race could well be too close to call.         

N.b. The published article which appears in the newspaper contains some small edits from this version.  


DR said...

Well Chekov, I see you have thrown of any pretense of neutrality and are giving Basil your full support, but did you have to peddle the same old rubbish than has been refuted numerous times?
As for saying Basil pledges give him "substance" I almost fell of my chair laughing, they lasted less than 5 minutes of scrutiny in the real world.

Chekov said...

Still prefer McCrea to Elliott yes. Hardly a wholehearted endorsement of Basil. In fact it's the whole UUP I'm losing faith in if the truth be told. But given the moderniser or the same old same old it's no contest.

Chekov said...

Incidentally I didn't even make a judgement on Basil's pledges. I noted that he 'hopes' they'll combat style over substance allegations.

Glyn Chambers said...


Why not join the Conservatives? It seems that you agree with the vast majority of what we are trying to do.

DR said...

Chekov, all I can say is if Tom becomes leader give him a chance, I think he can modernise and carry the traditional wing too, its the deadwood in both wing that needs pruned, I think he can do that without causing splits.

slug said...

I prefer McCrea on policy position, on his responses to questions which seem much too 'defensively monoethnic', and on overall speaking style.

However, its quite possible that Elliott has a lot of qualities that could make him a good leader.

Also, I think the new UUP Assembly team can only get more modern in attitude as a generational and gender shift comes up. This is largely because it could hardly get any worse but partly because some of the new faces look promising.

So even if Tom wins the leadership, the new Assembly members will hopefully be more modern in outlook.

slug said...

Sorry in my first para above I meant to say that I find Elliot's instincts much too "defensively monoethnic" and that McCreas are not.

slug said...

Perhaps the biggest worry I have about Elliott is his past form on unionist unity:

These comments in the Seymour Major blog suggest he is keen on forming alliances with the DUP - and that in so doing he did damage to the integrity of the UUP's message at the last election.

Surely that is unforgiveable?

DR said...

Slug, firstly, Seymour and Tom have clashed before so bit of history there, secondly Tom wasn't at the Schomberg "talks" he was at Hatfield at the invite of the Conservatives, and considering how the DUP leaked and spun that he certainly wont be having "secret talks" with them as they cant be trusted.
As for F&ST, it was the elephant in the room from the start and was ignored, Tom had no option but back a unity candidate, it would have been electoral suicide otherwise, trust me on that, I canvased for Connor and a UUP candidate, whether Tom or someone else would have been slaughtered with long term damage done.
Unfortunately the delay cost the seat.
Tom has no love for the DUP and has seen much of their ugly side over the years, including their bullying, he knows some co-operation will be necessary to secure some seats, but thats as far as it goes, "unionist unity" is not on the agenda.