Sam McBride: Inauspicious start for inexperienced new Ulster Unionist leader

New UUP leader Steve Aiken (centre) with former leader Lord Empey (left) and senior MLA Doug Beattie
New UUP leader Steve Aiken (centre) with former leader Lord Empey (left) and senior MLA Doug Beattie
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Most political leaders begin with a honeymoon period in which they are largely immune to criticism.

Having won a mandate to lead their party, they are insulated from awkward questions as both internal and external opponents accept that they have a period in which to implement their agenda and then be judged on what they have done.

Steve Aiken is in the unfortunate position of coming into the Ulster Unionist leadership not only on the cusp of an election, but having performed a huge U-turn which means that he is unlikely to have any such period of respite.

Having, in an interview with this newspaper, committed to stand candidates in all 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland and then having reversed that stance after coming under pressure, the former submarine commander finds himself in territory where there are few precedents.

Mr Aiken was a relatively low-profile political figure – something which is largely an inevitable consequence of the fact that for most of his time in politics there has been no sitting Assembly in which he can do his job as a legislator.

However, because of that low profile, most people know little about him and will therefore judge him on what he now does.

For many of those people the only thing which they will know about him is that he performed a major U-turn before even starting as leader.

There was no public hint of concern about the new leader from the several hundred UUP delegates at Saturday’s Ulster Unionist Council meeting in Templepatrick.

However, both traditional Ulster Unionists and their more liberal counterparts must be somewhat concerned that their leader is now implementing a policy in which it is clear he does not believe.

Mr Aiken made clear in his News Letter interview and elsewhere that he believes the DUP are damaging the Union and therefore it is illogical for unionists to vote for such a party and it was for that reason that he was planning to stand against the DUP in every constituency.

On Saturday the new UUP leader spoke in regretful tones as he said that he had “a vision where one day we can have a normal political discourse where political parties will be fighting elections on policies, rather than the rancorous dialogue over seats for one community or the other; where all political parties will engage in the democratic process and take their seats – rather than attempting to turn every single election into a plebiscite for a united Ireland”.

However, he went on to say that “even in the toxic atmosphere of this election, we could never leave those who believe in the Union to a Sinn Fein MP”.

The logic of that position is that the UUP should never contest seats where to do so might lead to a Sinn Fein candidate winning. While that is a position supported by many unionists across all parties, the problem it poses for the UUP is that as increasing numbers of seats become marginals, the UUP will be restricted to contesting a handful of Westminster seats.

In that situation, if the priority is to avoid splitting the unionist vote, why not simply retire the party and formalise a single unionist vehicle?

Many, probably most, UUP members want the former – unionist electoral pacts – but not the latter. They believe that it is possible to retain their own identity while doing deals with the DUP. But successive UUP leaders have struggled to convincingly articulate why the DUP are a threat to the Union to be resisted in most constituencies but in certain seats UUP voters should endorse the DUP regardless.

Will Mr Aiken be the leader to successfully communicate that message?

Soon we will know, but the revelation that Mr Aiken does not believe in the message has made for an inauspicious start.