Is the UUP guilty of opportunism, or is it finally setting out its stall under Tom Elliott?
Last night, following bitter clashes between the Finance and Health Ministers, Ulster Unionists announced that they won’t back the Draft Budget. Michael McGimpsey has consistently complained that his department hasn’t been afforded enough money to maintain NHS services.
It must be said that a refusal to endorse the budget is by no means the same as a pledge to oppose it. UUP ministers and the SDLP minister originally abstained when the Executive putatively ’agreed’ the draft.
If the party merely wants to give the impression that its ministers are accepting the figures under duress, then there is nothing particularly new about its tactic, nor is it likely to capture the public’s imagination. The Ulster Unionists are simply stepping up their complaints a gear or two.
Acting as ’grit in the oyster’, during the Hillsborough talks over the devolution of policing, just made the UUP look confused and petulant. It’s opponents were able to portray the party as ’anti-agreement’ and it appeared to many voters that it was motivated mainly by sour grapes or was engaged in political manoeuvres.
The UUP’s subsequent attempts to wrest more Executive influence for itself and the SDLP from the Hillsborough debacle were doomed to failure. The two parties are just as peripheral as ever to the real decision making.
Over at Open Unionism, Geoff notes that the party’s response to the budget, “is an opposition stance”. He asks, if the UUP has chosen the battlefield, does it “have a battle plan?”.
It’s a piquant question. If the Ulster Unionists simply intend to oppose from within again, then the impression of constant complaint, ill-grace and underlying impotence could be perpetuated.
If, on the other hand, McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy are prepared to pull out of the Executive, in order properly to hold it to account, a clear strategy is emerging. If the settlement for the Health Minister is unacceptable, then he shouldn’t remain in post to administer it and to take the blame.
I’m afraid, at this stage, that impotent complaint is still the more likely scenario. See the interim budget response which the UUP has rushed out on its website.
In that case the party is easily portrayed as a constant obstacle when things need to get done. And one that can, in any case, be easily surmounted. If, on the other hand, the UUP is prepared to oppose the Executive and its budget plan, then the party might just begin to look purposeful again.