The arrival of the visiting party leader was much anticipated. The talks leading up to it had not been without their problems. Political parties possess a surplus of ego but are often short on unifying endeavour however the arrangements had been finally agreed. The UUP Conference 2008, the date of which had been delayed to December, was under way.
To keep the home team happy the Conservative Party Leader David Cameron MP would meet with local NI Conservative supporters and hold a meeting under the party banner but the main spotlight would be on his visit to the UUP party conference at the Ramada Hotel in South Belfast. It was awash with journalists and cameras as evidenced by the media scrum that formed as he, flanked by his assistants and Owen Patterson MP, Shadow Secretary of State, arrived at the hotel. The alliance of the UUP and the Conservative and Unionist Party was being forged into a new force.
In his speech David Cameron MP, a polished speaker,established his unionist credentials by referring to the contribution made by people from Northern Ireland to the history, life and economy to the United Kingdom. He spoke of the historical and new links between the two parties and of his desire to see elected MPs from Northern Ireland serve in his Cabinet.
To the listeners inside and outside the conference he seemed to signal an end to sectarian and communal politics. At the conclusion to his speech he received a rapturous reception and standing ovation.
Following recent election results the UUP was in a weakened state and morale was low. The election of a new leader in Sir Reg Empey MLA had revealed tactical and policy divisions. Many saw this new alliance as the salvation of the party. One leading MLA, seated on the front row was heard to say: “ We’re back.”
In spite of a strong showing in the European elections the General Election of 2010 was to prove otherwise. No MPs were returned under the UCUNF banner.
An internal report, which is in the public domain, identified a number of factors including mixed messages and lack of unified commitment to the project which never enjoyed the full support of all of the elected members or, indeed, all of the members of the party for a variety of reasons.
Following the election there was a change of UUP leader and the alliance quickly unravelled. Later attempts to re-engage foundered as the UUP was invited to dissolve and merge with the Conservative party.
On Saturday last there was not a re-run but the occasion bore some similarity to past events as Colum Eastwood MLA leader of the SDLP addressed the UUP Conference at the Ramada hotel. From all appearances he was well received and got a standing ovation for his contribution on the day. His speech was well crafted and some of Mike Nesbitt’s analysis of politics must have produced some discomfort.
In truth there will be those within the UUP who long for unionist unity and would prefer to have seen the leader of the DUP present on the podium to signal a coming together of unionism.
It appears however that will be for another day, in all probability during the next Westminster elections. The dog whistle will sound and electoral pacts agreed. The UUP it seems prefers leadership that can be trusted not to go too far from the narrow ground.
Mixed messaging is once more emerging and has drawn comment from a number of commentators.
Party Leader Mike Nesbitt MLA can but be lauded for wishing to lead the UUP and Northern Ireland away from sectarian divisions towards normal democratic politics. Apart from some cheap shots aimed at individuals and an ill-considered reference to the DUP champagne breakfast which, it should also be said, was facilitated by a Conservative Party that may be looking for supportive allies in the Westminster lobbies there were many sound policies and measures which focus on social justice and economic realities. These could serve to inform the agenda and the actions of meaningful opposition at Stormont which, in due course, could also include the Alliance party if it is so minded. This would be a further challenge to stereotypical predictability and in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
Sitting alongside this is the hackneyed rhetoric and reference in interviews to electoral pacts that signal a pandering to unionism that has an excess of loyalism and too closed a memory of the Boyne. Unionism is once again rendered one-dimensional and a negative appendage to the binary model. Unionist voters, attracted by this, will vote for that unionist party which does it better.
Having seemed to find its own voice -nonsectarian unionism with a focus on preferred rather than forced co-operation across historical divides, will fail to provide the leadership that an increasing number of non-voting unionists across the generations want to see.
Courage and convictions come to mind.