Irish Times
27 Mar 2012

THE ULSTER Unionist Party will elect its 15th leader in Belfast on Saturday. There are two candidates: the favourite, Mike Nesbitt, Assembly member for Strangford; and the MLA for South Down, John McCallister.

Whoever wins will make history – this will be the first time in the party’s 107-year history that the leader will not be a member of the Orange Order.

Whoever wins must also seek to begin clawing back support for a party that for most of the past 100 years was the dominant political force in Northern Ireland, but which over the past decade and more has seen its fortunes fall to their lowest-ever level.

In the 2011 Assembly elections the UUP won just 16 seats, meaning its entitlement to ministerial departments dropped from two to one. In the 2010 British general election it did not win a single seat.

Earlier this month the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott announced he was standing down as leader after just 18 months. The party’s continuing decline, allied to a series of mishaps and gauche comments by Elliott and growing internal dissatisfaction at his leadership, prompted him to go before a possible challenge at the UUP agm this Saturday.

Likely contender Danny Kennedy, the Minister for Regional Development, decided early that he would not stand, leaving the field to Nesbitt (54) and McCallister (40).

Nesbitt, a former news anchorman for UTV, has the higher profile of the two candidates, although McCallister has tried to portray him as being inexperienced because he was first elected in last year’s Assembly elections. McCallister was first elected to the Assembly in 2007.

There is one main policy difference between the candidates: McCallister favours the radical approach of leading the UUP out of the Northern Executive and into opposition in the Assembly, while Nesbitt wants to hold on to the party’s single department.

McCallister argues that exiting the executive would leave the UUP with greater influence in that it could exert greater pressure on First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

Nesbitt favours staying put.

“John McCallister and I agree that we do not have enough power and influence at present,” he said. “Where we disagree is how to fix it. I want to increase our power base in councils, the House of Commons, Europe and the NI Assembly. I do not see that being achieved by walking away.”

Nesbitt has also indicated he would be prepared to discuss possible electoral pacts with the DUP, rather than any formal association, while McCallister has warned that any connection with the DUP would be the “kiss of death” for the UUP.

Some 2,000 UUP members are entitled to vote on Saturday, but, based on the last leadership election in 2010, it is expected that upwards of 900 members will attend Saturday’s meeting in the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast.

Both Nesbitt and McCallister would be viewed as UUP modernisers. That and the fact that neither is in the Orange Order may pose some voting difficulties for the party’s still considerable traditionalist base.

The second UUP MLA for Strangford, David McNarry, who quit the party’s Assembly group over a row with Elliott – but who is still a party member and entitled to vote – has portrayed Nesbitt as shallow and McCallister as naive and immature.

He said he was on the “horns of a dilemma” over whether he could vote for either man.

After Saturday, not only will the UUP leader not be an Orangeman, but there will be no unionist leader at Stormont who

is in the Orange Order – neither DUP leader Peter Robinson nor Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, is an Orangeman.