I spent the weekend in icy Fermanagh, and not at the Ulster Unionist conference. Ironically, if the cliché rings true, half the County enjoyed subsidised transport in the other direction.
Still, reportedly 400 delegates heard Tom Elliott deliver his speech at the Ramada Hotel in Belfast, whereas just shy of 1,000 crowded into the Waterfront Hall to elect him leader, so perhaps the Enniskillen fleet wasn‘t quite so well-filled this time.
The speech is carried on the UUP website and it reads reasonably well, although the Belfast Telegraph reports that the delivery was stilted. In contrast, Alan from Belfast thinks that Elliott is getting more assured. Perhaps both are fair comment.
In terms of content there are positives and negatives in the text. To allay critics who accuse Elliott of being a ’dinosaur’, he makes strenuous efforts to define his unionism in positive terms. It is grounded in ’pluralism and an equality of citizenship and opportunity’, the UUP leader claims. Fine words, doubtless sincerely meant.
He went to strenuous efforts to point out that the DUP / Sinn Féin partnership at the centre of the Executive is a ’carve-up’, based on separation, rather than integration or sharing. It goes without saying, but it deserves to be restated, with Peter Robinson trying to claim the middle ground and the moral high ground. Despite claims that the UUP is swinging drastically to the right, it's core analysis remains consistent.
The speech also more or less repudiates ’unionist unity’, other than in the broadest sense. Cooperation with other unionist parties - rather than dodgy deals and electoral stitch ups - is the preference. If, as the UUP insists, the DUP is doing a bad job, then it shouldn't let it off the hook by presenting candidates as interchangeable. Elliott is avoiding a huge elephant trap if the Ulster Unionists avoid cuddling up to their rivals.
Finally, the new leader is still keen to weave a ’pan-UK’ element into his unionist credo. It’s important that it remains an overarching concern, even if the practicalities are very obviously on the slip. More concrete evidence of a broad, national outlook would be ideal, but the fact that it's still on the radar means that the future isn't all bleak quasi-unionism.
On the flip side there is a notable lack of substantive policy. The UUP remains more concerned with pointing out where the problems lie with others, and defending its own past record, rather than describing the positive role which it can play in the future.
‘The way ahead’ section of Elliott’s speech was a misnomer.
Then there’s the section about a link with the Conservative party. The leader has stated that he wishes to retain a connection, but yet the tenor from many Ulster Unionists is relentlessly negative. In additional remarks Elliott clarified that he envisages the UUP becoming a Northern Ireland ‘franchise’ of the national party.
I’m not sure how he understands franchising, but I’d imagine that Conservatives will be sceptical of an arrangement which sees no Conservative livery, no Conservative branding and precious little in the way of Conservative policy. Mr Elliott seeks a relationship which offers a substantial risk and very little benefit to the Tories.
All Watson and McNarry and no responsibility. It rather neatly mirrors many ‘little Ulster’ unionists idea of Northern Ireland’s relationship with the UK as a whole.
Lastly, while Elliott struck a reasonably constructive note, the BBC coverage featured party chairman David Campbell growling about Harry Hamilton and other defectors.
Perhaps he feels better having got this off his chest, but provided a sour and unpleasant tenor for the UUP’s annual showpiece.