The Ulster Unionist Party have had, by any account, a truly awful week: Party Vice Chair resigns after Michael McGimpsey decides not to go ahead with the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin; Special Advisor to Danny Kennedy, Brian Crowe is dismissed after some quite serious allegations about his conduct; and to round up the bad week, after Basil McRea and John McAllister gift Stephen Nolan an interview where they explicitly clash with their Leader over the prospect of Sinn Fein gaining the First Minister post, David McNarry just about lost all control on the radio and publicly lambasted the troublesome duo even calling into question their suitability as candidates.
On examination, the issue with Brian Crowe is actually the easiest for the party to deal with. This wasn't a problem with policy nor did it arise through internal party problems and as such it's hard to level any blame at the party itself. Embarrassing? Certainly, but it's one of those things that could happen to any party at any time, no matter who was in charge or how strong a party.The other two issues are the real indicators of just how much trouble the UUP are really in and that is because they highlight the big problem for the party: there is no joined up thinking.
It is almost impossible to have a truly democratic political grouping where all the members agree on all the issues. Those joining parties accept that there are compromises on policy that they have to make in order to be a part of something striving for something more important; that of an overriding vision of how you wish to govern and be governed. Look across the political spectrum across the UK and you will see that other parties, whilst having dissenters in the ranks, can still maintain discipline and present a truly united front when it matters, particularly at election time. Labour, for example, is filled with internal feuds and warring factions but they have a common purpose which is to govern as social democrats and shape British politics along the left wing. In Northern Ireland, the DUP remains a right of centre party with a strong Christian base. Those joining and supporting are under no illusions.
For years, the UUP's one overriding vision was that of securing Northern Ireland's position in the Union. Well, that job is done and there are very few who think that responsibility isn't safe in the hands of the DUP. If that's the case, what is the point of the UUP? What vision do they sell to their members? What are we for and what are we selling to the electorate?
It could be argued that the UUP offer, as they have always claimed, an open house where moderates are welcomed and religion not the issue of the day. Why then, has there been talk from the leadership of strengthening the links with the Orange Order? Not only does that exclude Catholics but it also sends a message to the more liberal Christians and those who aren't interested in religion at all that the UUP at heart, is still a party for Protestant people. That may be the message that the leadership want and it may even come to pass that it is indeed the plan but if so, say so and let your members know now so they can get behind it or leave. Of course, if the UUP do decide to go down that path the next valid question will be why not just join the DUP?
For me, the UUP has an opportunity to reshape the party along broadly moderate, centre ground policy. Unfortunately, the current leader is incapable. By all accounts, Tom Elliott is a nice man and a decent man but that counts for nothing in leadership terms. A leader who wants to revitalise and bring about reform needs to make tough, ruthless decisions. In this case, it will be the decision that costs the party a good chunk of it's membership as they go across to the DUP. A good leader would be prepared to take the risk in order to achieve the aim of attracting new blood into the party, united under a clear vision of what the party is trying to achieve.