Sam McBride: Despite UUP’s tough talk, party should be alarmed at two key failures

Despite the confident rhetoric from the platform and the perfunctory applause, two recent electoral events mean that in private some of the more thoughtful senior UUP figures were concerned at the party conference on Saturday.

Last month the UUP and other of the DUP’s opponents were unable to force the removal of Ian Paisley as North Antrim MP via a recall petition after he was found guilty of serious misconduct over undeclared lavish holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

Delegates listen to Robin Swann's speech in Armagh on Saturday

Delegates listen to Robin Swann's speech in Armagh on Saturday

In what was probably a tactical blunder, UUP leader Robin Swann personally backed the petition but then did not register to campaign for others to sign it – a sort of half-in position which left Sinn Fein as the lead proponents of signing the petition, something which will have put off some unionists in the overwhelmingly unionist constituency.

Then last Thursday the UUP failed to eat into the DUP vote at all in a Carrickfergus council by-election which is an exceptionally rare opportunity to test the mood of the electorate between elections because council by-elections have been abolished in most circumstances.

Mr Swann noted in his speech that the by-election saw the UUP share of the vote increase by 7%.

It may seem churlish to be critical of a party which increases its vote, but in truth this was a deeply alarming result for the UUP.

The by-election was to replace an independent councillor and therefore because he was not a candidate every other party saw its vote increase.

It was an open goal for the UUP: The DUP has been mired in daily revelations from the RHI Inquiry, with a weakened leader in Arlene Foster and a moribund political backdrop where the party has no power at Stormont and is now itself openly unsure of its power in Westminster around Brexit.

And yet the DUP vote soared from 27% in 2014 to 38% while the UUP vote increased less – up from 16% to 23%.

Turnout was an appalling 21% after a lacklustre campaign where the UUP made little noise. It was an unflattering contrast with the situation in the famous Dromore by-election of 2008 which, after a high-profile campaign, saw the TUV eat into the DUP vote and their transfers bringing in the UUP in a safe DUP area. That was the catalyst for toppling the DUP founder Ian Paisley – showing that a relatively inconsequential by-election can have profound consequences.

But, despite having been at the receiving end of ferocious DUP pressure during the Trimble years, now that the UUP finds itself in a position where it could do something similar it lacks the killer instinct necessary to win.

Mr Swann indicated that next May’s council elections will be fought on the RHI revelations and the DUP-backed legacy proposals. Those are tricky areas for the DUP – but the UUP needs more cunning to turn them into votes.