Open Unionism


A forum to discuss new ideas and perspectives on Unionism…

Can new head articulate message – if one is found?

My analysis of Tom Elliott’s leadership victory, which was published in Friday’s Irish News.

By Owen Polley

As expected, Ulster Unionist members elected Tom Elliott their party’s new leader at a meeting on Wednesday evening. A thumping majority of delegates voted for the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA, who favours a traditional brand of unionism, rather than Basil McCrea, whose politics are coloured by a more liberal hue.

Many grassroots Ulster Unionists will welcome Elliott‘s success. They argue that his opponent’s campaign relied on style rather than substance and they travelled in numbers from their rural strongholds, in order to back the favourite at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.

The Fermanagh man certainly represents the innate conservatism of much of the Ulster Unionist membership better than his Lagan Valley counterpart. But his everyman image could also prove a handicap, if the party seriously aspires to win back over one hundred thousand votes which it lost over the course of the past decade. Basil McCrea is widely acknowledged to possess communication skills and media savvy which Elliott lacks.

Read the rest of this entry »


Filed under: UUP, UUP leadership election, ,

Best of the Web

This article originally appeared in last Friday’s News Letter…

By Geoff McGimpsey

It’s all change in the UUP. Empey is departed, Elliott has arrived. So farewell then cautious, right-leaning, traditional unionist message… and hello, erm, cautious, right-leaning, traditional unionist message!

Mike Nesbitt’s blog refers to Tom’s impressive margin of victory. He’s right to. Basil failed to win enough support to cause the new leader any real trouble in future.

But Mike adds: “Tom promises Basil and his supporters his UUP will not be a cold house for them. This is an opportunity to bind together, let’s take it.”

Well, Basil pledged unity in his speech so bind he must.

Lots of positive feedback filtered through onto facebook and twitter. Folk like Bill Mainwaring are now looking forward to the election.

He wrote: People want politics that make a difference and politicians who will put issues before rhetoric. Between now and next May Tom has an opportunity to show that he can lead the party in this direction.”

Over at Open Unionism, I once again showed my nose for backing a winner. Having had the foresight to back Alan McFarland in 2005, I came out for Basil McCrea. If you’ve got political ambitions, my support is a bit like Sandyknowes roundabout at 8.15am on Monday morning –just try to avoid it at all costs.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Best of the Web,

It’s Elliott’s party… and his right to impose internal discipline

Part of a letter, purportedly written by Tom Elliott to UUP members, twittered by Stephen Nolan:

“…what should have been a positive party media day on Thursday was spoiled by members contributing to Nolan in an unsavoury manner about issues that should be dealt with through the private mechanisms of the party…..there is no need for this type of public argument and I will not tolerate it.”

I think the potential of a “positive party media day”, post his leadership election, was perhaps exaggerating the reality, but apart from that, nothing really you could argue with there. Part of the success of Sinn Fein and (more importantly for the UUP) the DUP is built on the fact they very rarely wash their dirty laundry in public.

In contrast, UUP politicians and their apparatchiks have been going on solo-runs (either publicly or via whispers to the media) since the days of Trimble and whilst they may have achieved short-term internal victories by those means, it has created externally the perception of a party constantly at war with itself. Why vote for a party which has such publicly expressed conflicting visions of what it stands for?

Which brings us to the main cause of Tom Elliott’s ire, Trevor Ringland’s own solo-run Thursday morning. I’m no fan of Elliott or, to be more exact, his (let’s put it euphemistically) “traditional” attitudes towards such things as “joint” candidates, the GAA and Gay Pride.

The UUP has elected an Orangeman, with all that fact implies to the much wider non-Orange society in Northern Ireland. I suspect his lack of media-savvy will be exploited mercilessly by the UUP’s opponents. To me, he’s a leader who would have fitted in more comfortably to the Unionist Party and the Northern Ireland of the 1960s than to the modern political and media world of 2010.

But move back to two sentences there and you’ll see the whole point that Ringland has missed; ie “The UUP have elected…”.

Elliott has the mandate to lead the party, given to him by the large majority of the party which actually voted. It’s his views on the GAA and Gay Pride which a large majority of the party obviously feel comfortable with, not Ringland’s.

Despite all the reservations about Elliott I mentioned, he has displayed at least one leadership quality in the leaked letter which will be needed if he is to have any success whatsoever guiding the UUP back into any kind of relevance. It’s up now to Ringland to appreciate what Wednesday’s night result is telling him and other liberals and civic Unionists within the party and… basically, shape up — or ship out.


As is so often the case with Nolan, not so much as not telling the truth as bending it in the most sensationalist way possible; this is the full text of the letter sent:

Dear Members

This is just a short note to thank you for the support that I and the Ulster Unionist Party received on Wednesday night at the Waterfront Hall. It was very encouraging to have such a significant number of Party members attend.

Unfortunately what should have been a positive Party media day on Thursday was spoiled by members contributing to the Nolan Show in an unsavoury manner about issues that should be dealt with through the private mechanisms of the Party.

I have no wish to stop members from forming and putting forward their opinion. However I wish to re-iterate that I will make myself available to discuss matters of concern with Party members, therefore there is no need for this type of public argument and I will not tolerate it.

Yours sincerely

Tom Elliott MLA

Filed under: UUP, UUP leadership election, , ,

This makes me despair…

This is the problem with Unionist parties.

Mike Nesbitt said this in his Union 2021 article:

As a broadcast journalist, interviewing Ian Paisley and the other unionist leaders of the 1980s, I felt they were missing a trick. Had I been Paisley or Jim Molyneaux, I would have driven down to the Office of An Taoiseach, and offered Charlie Haughey a United Ireland there and then, on the simple condition the Republic match NI’s budgets for Health, Schools, Roads, and the rest. Would Haughey not have insisted on offering an armed Garda escort back to the border with a lifetime ban on a return visit? The Republican could not afford us then, any more than they can today.

It’s a simple, straightforward point – republicans can’t put their money where their mouths are. A united Ireland, whilst a legitimate political aspiration, is not a real world objective. It cannot happen. A perfectly reasonable thing for a unionist to say you’d think.

Well, no. The DUP issued the following statement in the name of Sydney Anderson:

Upper Bann DUP MLA Sydney Anderson has described as ‘truly shocking’ comments from potential UUP Deputy Leader Mike Nesbitt that he would have offered a united Ireland subject to the proper financial arrangements being made for it.  In his Union 2021 article of 24th September, Mike Nesbitt, who is being touted as a potential UUP Deputy Leader, stated:

“I would have driven down to the Office of An Taoiseach and offered Charlie Haughey a united Ireland there and then, on the simple condition the Republic match Northern Ireland’s budgets for health, schools, roads and the rest.”

Sydney Anderson said:

“This is a truly shocking statement coming from such a prominent UUP strategist. Mike Nesbitt has said he would have offered our Province over to Charlie Haughey. Mike Nesbitt would have been making his offer to a man who was removed from government in the Irish Republic after being implicated in the arming of the Provisional IRA.

For such a prominent UUP member to claim in explicit terms that he would have offered Northern Ireland up to the Republic of Ireland if the finances had been right is a truly shocking disclosure.

Mr. Nesbitt’s disgraceful remarks belie a commitment to the Union that seems to extend nowhere beyond money.

We need to hear just where Tom Elliott stands on this. Will he be appointing a deputy who whilst flashy on TV admits he would have signed our country over to the Irish state? It is becoming painfully apparent that Mr. Nesbitt’s newly-discovered commitment to Unionism is tenuous.”

Despite some stiff competition, this is one of the dumbest, most irrelevant, unnecessary and pathetic press statement I’ve ever seen from any unionist party. Why aren’t press officers being asked to do something better than peddle this garbage? Why are the most senior people in unionism (MLAs) happy to put their names to this tosh?

The blame culture has to stop. Anyone who reads statements like Sydney Anderson’s (ie. the media) will conclude that unionism’s political elite has a) nothing better to do and b) nothing relevant to say. Who benefits from a statement like that?

In his blog Mike calls for a meeting with Sydney. The clever thing for Sydney to do is accept the invitation and find something constructive to do.

The options are clear – do a smart thing or do a stupid thing? What will he do?

Filed under: Union 2021, unionist unity?, UUP, ,

An opportunity to reinvent government

The below has been reposted from The Dissenter. This offers a really useful insight into Northern Ireland’s ‘Soviet style’ economy…

The posturing, positioning and indignant defiance over impending reduction in government expenditure is rife. But it is not just David Cameron who thinks Northern Ireland has a command economy that matches anything once boasted by the Soviet bloc.

In the rent-seeking economy of Northern Ireland, it is deemed politic to blame others for the withdrawal of funding across the economy.  It is also an indictment of both the poverty of aspiration and lack of imagination among the political class.

Much of  Northern Ireland government spending is decided in Whitehall, for example social security spend, or Europe, the bulk of DARD’s money pot. Much of the discussion will be placed on efficiency of Departmental administration of those funds.  The range and scope of much of health expenditure is also directed from Whitehall, though there is a great deal of scope to review how that money is managed and spent.  Similarly, education could be reviewed in the context of building and deepening academic excellence at all levels rather than political polemic. More importantly, as the political class seems increasing remote for the electorate, perhaps it is time to think how government could be devolved back to the individual. Northern Ireland government requires a total rethink.

The thinking has to start somewhere. thedissenter asked Eamonn Butler, Director of the Adam Smith Institute for some basic pointers our politicians might take on board when considering ‘cuts’ in a wider dimension. Five questions in almost as many minutes. Eamonn is keynote speaker at the Agenda NI seminar Rethinking Government on 26th October at the Grosvenor House Conference Centre, Belfast. It will be interesting to hear how the politicians, social sector and business community respond to his thinking.

It is not time to cut government in Northern Ireland: it is time to take the opportunity to reinvent government in Northern Ireland.

Eamonn Bulter is Director and co-founder of Britain’s leading free-market policy think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, and a leading author and broadcaster on economics and social issues. Westminster insiders look forward each week to his wry online commentary on politics and politicians.

via An opportunity to reinvent government. « The Dissenter.

Filed under: academic, business, economy,

My take on the UUP leadership contest…

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The UUP leadership contest concludes this evening. From the get-go, I opened up this blog to both candidates to place material and (in my own small way) to help get information out into the public domain. I intentionally set out to be a facilitator and haven’t taken any sides. But with a decision now only hours away,  I have to say that I’m backing Basil McCrea… with some considerable trepidation it has to be said.

My overriding conclusion is that this has been the worst leadership campaign which any party has had to endure of late. It was said on numerous occasions that the campaign could be used as a sales tool to promote the wider UUP brand. Instead, the opposite occurred. In my opinion, neither campaign has enhanced the brand it purports to lead.

Too often the candidates spun against one another. From the extremely pointed headlines in blogs and in the press, to the outright confrontation between the personalities behind closed doors – this has been a very poor period for the party.

I’ve long been saying to people that the UUP is currently selecting a raft of Assembly candidates who are much more inspiring that the leadership candidates. The middle tier within the UUP is surprisingly strong and well-furnished with talent. The emergence of a crop of talented younger people makes plain the massive talent and credibility gap that exists within the UUP’s senior team.

As Chekov has so rightly pointed out, Tom is the face of the ‘Stumbling and Mumbling Party’. As a stumbler and mumbler myself, I know the limits of my talents (or at least where my talents lie). Sadly, leadership is not Tom. He is campaigning for a job which he cannot hope to perform effectively.

Tom has consistently failed to understand what leadership means. Whether his comments on GAA or gay pride (or failing to back the Ulster side in the All-Ireland) are technically permissable, they are nonetheless inadvertently catastrophic. By stubbornly, implacably standing over his comments, Tom has shown a critical lack of leadership. He fails to understand what impact his personal views have on the corporate brand. Where he ought to have been measured, Tom showed himself to be very flat-footed and lacking in political nous.

But has Basil done any better? Yes, but only slightly. In my opinion, he has somehow contrived to put in five years of superlative work to build up his reputation only to spend the best part of a month diminishing it. Basil had pegged out his position in the middle ground, all he had to do was hold his ground and avoid controversy. Instead we’ve had a deeply unsettling, rulebook-shredding revolution by a man who has shown little capacity for taking advice from people around him.

Basil too has misunderstood the nature of the job he’s applying for. He has confused ‘self-indulgence’ for ‘strength of character’. Being wilful is not the same as being strong willed. Where Basil needed a leadership campaign he instead brought us a campaign of incredible petulance.

I am deeply concerned by the UUP candidates, and by the quality of the people surrounding them. Both campaigns have been guileless, tending towards the kamikaze. But I’ll back Basil because he understands that the UUP has to change its ways and modernise. He knows how to perform in front of the media. He has a good grasp of policy and can think on his feet. He understands the threat posed by Alliance (and of drifting towards the right). And he knows how to use words to inspire hope in people (albeit rather patchily deployed these past four weeks).

Whereas a straighter, more decent, upstanding and honest man you’ll never meet, but Tom Elliott hasn’t convinced me that he has a strong enough grasp of any of those things.

Nevertheless, there are many people still undecided and uninspired. The outcome of this contest may yet come down to the speeches this evening. Basil effectively threw his campaign away over the past two weeks, he’s now got 15 minutes to win it back again. In order for him to do that, he’s got to try to undo, rather than reinforce, many of the messages which so spooked party members at his launch.

That tells you everything about this campaign, and everything about the one problem the UUP has consistently failed to address. The party can produce leaders, but it still can’t produce a coherent strategy.

Filed under: UUP leadership election, , ,

UUP hopefuls prepare for online debate

PUT your questions to the two men hoping to become Ulster Unionist leader, courtesy of the News Letter website.

Leadership hopefuls Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea are to participate in separate web chats this week, answering questions from an inquisitive audience.

As well as enabling the MLAs to voice their policy objectives and state their leadership qualities, the initiative will also allow a potential world wide audience to engage in the race to succeed Sir Reg Empey.

Both men are currently participating in internal party meetings across the province as they pitch their respective case to rank-and-file members.

Looking forward to the interactive web chat, Mr Elliott said: “The message I will be looking to get across is a positive view of the Union. I think it is important that we sell the benefits of the Union and people recognise that.”

Mr McCrea said: “I hope to demonstrate that I am open and transparent and am happy to debate all issues. In terms of the leadership, I will be arguing that the party needs to change and stand on its own two feet.”

To put your questions to either or both MLAs e-mail or log on to the News Letter website –

Web chat schedule:

Wednesday 15 September – Tom Elliott (1.00 – 2.00pm)

Thursday 16 September – Basil McCrea (1.00 – 2.00pm)

via UUP hopefuls prepare for online debate – Belfast Today.

Filed under: UUP leadership election, ,

Union 2021: ‘Unity could help deliver a positive vision for unionism’

DUP MLA Arlene Foster has contributed to The News Letter’s Union 2021 series of articles. This latest article appeared in the News Letter on September 11

A positive unionism open to all would demonstrate the narrowness and restrictiveness of Irish nationalism…

WHEN I began my political involvement in unionism there was a debate raging within it.

The debate was characterised by the term ‘New Unionism’. What we have seen since then has been the outworking of that debate.

For someone who was deeply involved in the discussions around ‘New Unionism’ it became apparent to me there was a division within those who used the term.

Some simply wished to find a term to hide their intellectual poverty and desire to cut a deal at any costs with nationalism. Others wanted it to mean a Unionism better at all that it did including negotiations.

I was never among the former group, the defeatists but I always wanted a better, more strategic, confident and professional unionism.
Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Union 2021, unionist unity?, ,

Union 2021: ‘Slash government to improve people’s lives’

Marketing and communications consultant David Hoey has contributed to The News Letter’s Union 2021 series of articles. David is a blogger who has contributed guest posts here in the past – his blog can be found The Dissenter. This latest article appeared in the News Letter on September 10

Northern Ireland is massively over-governed and needs radical changes to make it economically competitive in coming years

IT is not about whether or not a Sinn Fein first minster is acceptable. The current political structures, into which both the DUP and UUP have bought, mean that this is a possibility though far from a certainty.

In his recent News Letter article Alex Kane rightly outlines the challenge for unionists should Sinn Fein be the largest party at the next election. While electoral pacts have been discussed widely, alternative strategies have been absent in public discussion.

There is a widespread acceptance that we have a great deal less than good government at Stormont. Following on from Hillsborough, we are still waiting for Ritchie and Empey to get back to the executive on improving process to make government work.

It is most likely that the failure is fundamentally within the structures. In which case, likely solutions are only possible with a complete rethink.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Union 2021, ,

Some shameless self-promotion…

I see Tom Elliott’s post for Open Unionism received some coverage in today’s News Letter…

Filed under: UUP leadership election, ,

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