Today Mike Nesbitt gave his first speech as Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
It may well have been unknown to many people that the UU Party conference was on this weekend, but just to confirm; it was. Meetings of the UUP have traditionally been momentous occasions flanked by controversy and critical votes and therefore failed to escape the notice of the media. However we must remember that the UUP is no longer ‘top dog’ and is still continuing to justify its very existence, something Mike Nesbitt sought to do in his speech today.
To date Mike Nesbitt has been flanked by controversy within his short stint as UUP Leader since taking office earlier this year, namely the exit of two senior party members – Lord Maginnis of Drumglass and David McNarry MLA. In many ways it appears as if Mike is clearing the decks in order to change the image of the party. Lord Maginnis went, largely, due to the difference of opinion on the matter of gay marriage – an issue Mike may either a.) prefer to sit on the fence on or b.) support for fear of further controversy.
Other than controversy it is fair to say that Mike has overseen a period of ‘inactivity’ as Leader of the UUP and does not wish to be drawn on anything. Policy, on his part is lacking; however in his speech today he does refer to some aspects of policy and deals with issues such as the huge number of government departments’ at Stormont and number of MLAs. Nevertheless, my main point of criticism is that he goes into too much detail for a conference speech where all you require are soundbites.
In his speech he deals with the economy, employment, dealing with the past, the Union and good government. The context of his speech is relatively sound, but you can not expect someone to sit down and take everything in nor can you expect Joe Public to read it in full (apart from the odd anorak).
I also think he sought to avoid the significance of the Ulster Covenant, signed one hundred years ago. Given that this document was written and approved by the Ulster Unionist Council, at the initiative of Carson and Craig, Mike by and large avoided any talk of it. A mistake, I think, on his part. Especially when you are talking to the party faithful.
His speech was a pitch to Liberalism, something that does but does not exist in Ulster. Liberalism has come and gone in the past with the debate and matter over partition, by and large, raging on. Mike therefore failed to appeal to his electorate. Yes talk about the economy, you cannot get away from it – but at the same time you cannot ignore the events which occurred one hundred years ago that in effect were a direct reason for the formation of the UUP. His remarks at the beginning of his speech, ‘We can look back one hundreds years but I am going to look forward to the next one hundred years’ indicates an unease or unwillingness to address a very serious and historic matter of fact.
Later this week I will post a piece on the Ulster Covenant in the lead up to the anniversary this week.
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