NICK GARBUTT: Unionist unity would finish UUP

HOW ironic it would be if a speech to mark the centenary of the defining moment in unionist history were also to mark the final disintegration of the party that dominated Northern Ireland politics for most of the century that followed.

Yet that is the prospect faced by the Ulster Unionist Party after the dismissal of John McCallister as deputy leader when party boss Mike Nesbitt took exception to comments he made during an address to Young Unionists last weekend.

McCallister’s colleague Basil McCrea jumped to his defence on the Nolan Show, describing the dismissal as “fairly brutal”.

It is an astounding reversal for the party, so soon after its conference, and during the celebrations of a pivotal event which surely, above all others, it could claim as its own.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory has been the hallmark of the Ulster Unionists in recent years.

So what is going on within the UUP, can it survive, or is this latest row the beginning of the end?

During the last General Election my colleagues and I devised an online opinion poll which was designed to show how people in Northern Ireland would vote were it not for the sectarian divide. Those taking part filled out a questionnaire on policy issues which excluded questions about the border.

On analysis the Ulster Unionist Party was, by some distance, the most popular party in terms of its policies, outstripping both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Yet that was not reflected in the polls where the party continues to struggle, changing leaders like a faltering Premier League football team indulging in very public faction fighting and lurching from the Conservatives, to the DUP and the Orange Order like a drunken suitor in a wine bar.

The central problem for the UUP, and here there are direct parallels with the SDLP, is to find a new, credible and compelling voice that will help it to grow support in a post-conflict Northern Ireland.

In some respects you would have thought that might not be too difficult, after all it does appear to have the most popular policies. The trouble is that having policies people like is only part of getting to power.

A successful party also needs a clear central vision, excellent grassroots organisation and an enthusiastic and hardworking network; strong discipline in order to reinforce the vision and consistently deliver compelling messages, and strong charismatic leadership.

These are all qualities possessed by the DUP which is now an extremely well run and efficient vote-winning machine.

During the last election I chaired a hustings session in one constituency. It was really interesting to see that the DUP candidate turned up with a sheaf of notes outlining the party line on a series of key issues whilst the Ulster Unionist candidate just turned up.

Unionists know this is a weakness and they know that electoral strength can only come through strong leadership and a disciplined approach. That is presumably why Nesbitt was “fairly brutal” earlier this week. But that’s not the first time he’s been “fairly brutal” – the trouble is that being “fairly brutal” doesn’t seem to have had any effect, indeed it just seems to make matters worse.

This is doubly ironic if you read both Nesbitt’s conference speech alongside McCallister’s, as they both seem to be making the same, or at least a very similar point about the need for a pluralist brand of unionism and the need to challenge sectarianism.

If the Ulster Unionists are to survive they have to be both distinctive and relevant: and realistically that means being a distinctive and relevant alternative to the DUP.

The other strategy of unionist unity might ensure the survival of individual political careers, but surely it would mean the demise of the UUP – because why would anyone bother to vote for anything other than the stronger unionist party if they both stand for pretty much the same thing?

So McCallister’s sacking sends out very confusing messages which will need to be resolved very quickly indeed: do the Ulster Unionists want to carve out a strong, distinct identity and appeal to new voters, do they want to pursue unionist unity, or are they simply going to fall apart which, to most observers, seems the most likely scenario.