Take the latest furore surrounding John McCallister and his comments on water charging. The UUP deputy leader suggested on the Nolan Show that household bills may be a lesser evil if they were to lead to better protected public services. It was an eminently sensible comment.
There is a strong parallel between water charges and student fees. Neither water nor education is ever free. Somebody is picking up the bill, whether the cost is applied directly, or pocketed more surreptitiously from the public purse.
No water charge means a sacrifice elsewhere. No amount of pathetic, fantasy land, little Ulster, neo-Keynsian press releases from the DUP should persuade anyone otherwise.
But here's the difficulty. Certain UUP figures rushed to disclaim McCallister's comments and now the party has issued a mealy-mouthed clarification stating that it is happy with the status quo, vis-a-vis water charges. Apparently its deputy leader was musing on the position in 2007 (or something)!
(Insert a Paxmanesque drawn out 'yessssssss' - copyright Ultonia)
The issue of water charges has been around since Peter Hain used them as a stick with which to beat the DUP and Sinn Féin into a power-sharing Executive. Yet the UUP still doesn't know where it stands on the issue. In its press release the party calls for an 'open and honest debate' on the bills.
What on earth has been keeping it?
I'm convinced that the Alliance party is pointless, but among all the parties in Northern Ireland it is the only one of any size which has slaughtered the absurd holy cow that water charges must be endlessly deferred. That shows some guts.
The UUP has joined the rest, hmming and haaing. Sometimes indicating that it's prepared to countenance charges, then wheeling back out of populism, or in order to mollify its left wing. Yes, the DUP is inconsistent too, but that shouldn't hinder the Ulster Unionist party making its position clear.
This reluctance to form a solid position on any issue is quite a recurrent theme for the UUP. Look at David McNarry's economy document which exhorted the Executive, to erm .... do unspecified stuff.
With the best will in the world, the UUP is not going to recover until voters have some idea what it actually stands for. Being 'unionist' and not too nasty is simply not enough. The party really can do better.