Tom Elliott has freshened up the UUP team at Stormont. John McCallister is promoted to deputy leader, which will be interpreted as an olive branch to the party’s liberal wing. He replaces Danny Kennedy, who takes Sir Reg Empey’s portfolio as Minister for Employment and Learning. The rest of the changes can be viewed here.
Although McCallister’s elevation might soothe fears that supporters of Basil McCrea will be ostracised under the new leadership, Elliott has simultaneously filled an executive post with one of his key allies. Kennedy is an amiable politician, but his performances are often less than stellar.
In the aftermath of Lord Browne’s recommendations into university funding and the Northern Ireland specific Stuart Review, the new minister’s in-tray is already full to overflowing. He faces some exceptionally difficult and potentially unpopular decisions in his first year in office.
John McCallister may be the shrewder of the two appointments. Another liberal figure, Danny Kinahan, had been mentioned in connection with the deputy‘s position, but Elliott has gone further, by choosing an out and out Basil McCrea supporter. Whether his decision can patch up the divisions in the party, remains to be seen, but it should go some way to reassuring disaffected McCrea backers.
The proviso is that McCallister, like Elliott, is from a farming background. This rural tradition is strong in the UUP, but it yields ever fewer votes and it would be a pity were the party to ‘over-egg’ agriculture at Stormont.
Meanwhile Sir Reg Empey’s departure from the executive is likely to signal a step back from the frontline of everyday politics here. His spell as leader was an odd mixture of the visionary, the malformed and the stillborn. Hopefully the ’new unionism’ whose future he foresaw will not die because he lacked the fortitude to promote it fully.
Despite its ultimate failure he did take risks to promote politics with a pan-UK flavour and that was a laudable contribution. Will Empey finally make it to Westminster in the new year, taking up the Conservative and Unionist cause at the House of Lords, rather than defending his Assembly seat in East Belfast?