For someone whose background involved reading words off a teleprompter, there were some uncharacteristic slip-ups in Mike Nesbitt’s delivery of Saturday’s speech.
The most obvious came when he referred to the IRA’s “no-warning bombs like Bloody Sunday” when he meant to say ‘Bloody Friday’.
Mr Nesbitt has also developed a habit of plagiarising his own work, meaning that in chunks it felt unoriginal because it was unoriginal – with lines such as ‘letting teachers teach’ and ‘not asking children how intelligent they are but asking them in what way they are intelligent’ used repeatedly since he became leader. The content of the speech plotted a course somewhere between Alliance and the TUV – at times metropolitan modern Northern Ireland, at times traditional rural unionist.
But unlike last year’s conference where the party was internally strained, this was not a make-or-break moment.
Problems are still not far beneath the surface but a solid six months capped with unimaginable triumph on the Maze has bought Mr Nesbitt a period of desperately needed breathing space. Unlike last year, his leadership of the party will hardly have featured in conversations around the conference – not least because with the departure of Basil McCrea and John McCallister there are no longer any obvious contenders for his job.
The mood on Saturday was quietly optimistic, with obvious relief that recent internal disarray has been in the DUP. The frustration which a section of unionism feels with the DUP means that Mr Nesbitt may just need to avoid major gaffes to be a credible alternative in next year’s elections.
A smaller, more united party makes that easier. But growth in next year’s elections is crucial: If the UUP’s percentage of the vote increases at the DUP’s expense, Mr Nesbitt’s position will be secure and it could signal the final chapter for Peter Robinson.
But if the opposite occurs, the UUP is almost certain to return to what in recent years it has known best: navel-gazing, feuding and defections.