A rather hectic week last week prevented me from commenting on the UUP’s nightmare start to the election campaign. When Thursday started with high profile stories of a sex scandal and a resignation splashed across the newspapers Tom Elliott could hardly have expected the day to get worse. Cometh the hour, cometh McNarry, who decided to tear into Basil McCrea and John McCallister, live on the Nolan Show.
The pair had deviated from their leader’s view on Martin McGuinness and the First Minister’s position. In league with North Belfast MLA, Fred Cobain, Elliott suggested to Liam Clarke that the UUP might form a single Assembly group with the DUP, after the election, in order to prevent Sinn Féin taking the top spot. It was, he assured us, both possible and legal. McCrea and McCallister begged to differ, insisting that unionists should simply accept the result of the election.
It’s quite a merry-go-round for the Ulster Unionists. The leader surprises leading figures within his own party by announcing controversial policy through the pages of the Belfast Telegraph - the miffed 'liberals' respond by contradicting him on live radio - McNarry rings in to deliver one of his trademark rants. If there are other parties for which this type of thing happens, they are few and far between.
Elliott seems to be adopting a curious leadership style whereby he throws the liberals in his party a bone, then announces something to mollify the hard-liners. Hence we had the talk about opposition and agreeing a programme for government before forming the Executive followed by fulminating about McGuinness and suggesting that UUP ministers will form a bloc with the DUP. The problem is that the positions are often completely incompatible.
O’Neill neatly summarises the result. The DUP is now coasting towards topping another Assembly poll without any hindrance from the Ulster Unionists. Peter Robinson need only keep a steady ship.
The UUP will certainly be about after the next election, they have too many MLAs with personal followings for it to be otherwise, but the party will do exceptionally well to avoid losing ground. And as a collective the Ulster Unionists are widely perceived as more hapless and divided than ever before.
There’s nothing to suggest that the new Assembly will witness a more purposeful, coherent force. If anything Elliott is sowing the seeds of more dissent, more acrimony and possibly more defections, with his confused policy positions.
One thing we can say about the UUP - watching it and reading about it is rarely dull. If the party does disappear at some point during the next ten years there will be a cracking book to be written about its slow suicide.