Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Tom Elliott announced Thursday evening that he would be stepping down at the end of the month as party leader. Elliott was elected after the general election in mid-2010 after the resignation of former leader Reg Empey, who had been leader for five years. Empey resigned because the merger with the mainland Conservative Party under the label of Ulster Conservatives and Unionists--New Force cost the UUP its only remaining MP, Sylvia Hermon, who identified more with the British Labour Party than with the Tories. The party lost a number of its voters either because they didn't like the Tories, or because faced with a new party name they opted for the more familiar label of the rival Democratic Unionists (DUP). The same thing had occurred in South Africa in the mid-1970s when the venerable United Party gave up its familiar name after merging with a paper party. Many voters in Natal, its heartland, defected to the rival ruling National Party. The New Republic Party lasted for less than eleven years before it went out of business.
After the failure of the merger with the Tories, who have very little following in Northern Ireland, the UUP had three logical courses of action. First, it could have negotiated a merger with the DUP--either keeping that name or coming up with a new name. Such a merger would largely have been on the DUP's terms as the best time for the UUP to have merged would have been in 2001 or 2002 after three MLAs/MPs defected to the party. After the disastrous election of 2005, which left the UUP with only a single MP at Westminster, the party had little to bring as a dowry to the marriage. The second course would have been to leave the Executive and operate as an opposition party either with or without the cooperation of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). But to a party used to ruling the province from 1922 to 1972 and again from 1999 to 2002 under a return to devolution, this looked like a fate worse than death. So Elliott opted for the third course of muddling through.
The press has already speculated on possible candidates for the leadership. Three have been named: David Kennedy, the party's only minister in the Executive; Basil McCrea, the Lagan Valley MLA who was runner-up for the leadership against Elliott in 2010; and Mike Nesbitt, a former BBC news anchor/announcer in the province and the MLA for Strangford. Kennedy appears reluctant to risk his seat on the Executive, which he enjoys filling. Nesbitt is a relatively fresh face in the party with media skills. If he could come to an agreement with McCrea on policy direction the leadership would probably be his for the taking. McCrea would seem to be more inclined towards the opposition option as he ran as the liberal candidate in 2010. If the party attempts to continue to pursue the third option of muddling through under a new leader his tenure in office is likely to be no longer than Mr. Elliott's and the likely outcome will be a hostile takeover of the party's electorate by the DUP rather than a negotiated merger.
The leadership contest and the ultimate fate of the UUP should be of intense interest to three parties. First, it will be of interest to the DUP which is seeking to end up in the UUP's pre-1969 position as the sole unionist party. The DUP made most of its political errors in its first two decades of existence while former leader Ian Paisley and current leader Peter Robinson were learning the political ropes. Robinson was Paisley's third protege. The DUP no longer makes major political errors, although as a human enterprise it is subject to scandals as that which befell Robinson's wife and political partner Iris in 2010. Second, if the UUP opts for opposition it may throw a lifeline to the ailing SDLP. And if it does not and dies a "natural" political death it serves as the canary in the mineshaft for the SDLP letting it know that there is no longer enough political oxygen for an opposition party in either ethnic community in the North. Third, it will serve the same function for the Israeli Labor Party, which is suffering from the same rejection by the electorate because it appeared too soft in dealing with the opposition liberation movement cum terrorist organization. If the UUP can't recover against the DUP, what chance will there be for the Labor Party against the Likud and the Israeli Right?
See this article for a critical treatment of Elliott's tenure as UUP leader.