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.