It is official--there are three candidates to fill Tom Elliott's shoes as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in Northern Ireland. They are: Deputy Party Leader John McCallister; Rural Development Minister and MLA David Kennedy; and MLA Mike Nesbitt, a former UTV anchor/presenter. McCallister leads the liberal wing of the party and is being supported by his friend Basil McCrea who lost to Elliott in the previous leadership election in September 2010. The election will be at the end of the month.
Traditionally liberal candidates have not done well in UUP leadership elections. The last closest thing to a liberal was Terence O'Neill who resigned as prime minister in April 1969 at the start of The Troubles. Typically the right wing reactionaries also do not prevail in the UUP, although Lord Brookeborough who was prime minister for twenty years from 1943 to 1963 would fit that category. Bill Craig, the leader of the Vanguard paramilitary movement and faction within the UUP failed to win the election to succeed O'Neill in 1969 and the election to succeed the successor, Robin Chichester--O'Neill's cousin, in 1971.
Normally it is the centrists who can employ the correct language to appeal to the reactionaries who win. In 1995 David Trimble was the candidate of the right--he had been photographed participating in a triumphant jig after an Orange Order had been forced down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown during the Drumcree I crisis. In a five-way race that included John Taylor, the former interior minister in the last Stormont government before direct rule, and Ken Maginnis, the security spokesman of the party as the leader of the liberals, Trimble won. Both Trimble and his supporter and successor, Reg Empey, were followers of Bill Craig who quit the party to follow Craig into the political wilderness in 1973. But Trimble surprised everyone including both his former supporters and his critics by adopting policies advocated by Maginnis and governing following the Good Friday Agreement to the left of John Taylor as first minister .
Until Trimble led a group of young professionals into the upper ranks of the UUP it had always been the party of the Big House--the landed gentry of the sort who ran the Conservative Party in Britain until the 1950s and 1960s. Northern Ireland in this regard as in so many others was about a generation behind England. Now the party is being run by small-town lawyers and professional farmers who would not look out of place in the Republican Party in the American Midwest or South or in Fine Gael in Ireland.
McCallister has called for the party to leave the Executive and become the opposition, a role that is sorely needed in Northern Ireland. Mr. Kennedy is quite comfortable serving in the Executive. Nesbitt's vision for the future of the party is not really known at this time. I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that McCallister defies the party's history, but if I were betting I would bet on one of the other two. Kennedy can brag about his skills as a minister and Nesbitt about his skills as a media-savvy personality. It would seem that the majority of the party is more interested in muddling through than in taking a bold course. But as is now occurring in the Republican Party primaries in the United States with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum splitting the conservative base and allowing the weak Mitt Romney to win with the support of the moderate minority, Kennedy and Nesbitt could split the centrist-conservative base and allow McCallister to prevail with a slim majority. This is unlikely, however, because the leadership election precedes in rounds with the weakest candidate being eliminated before the next round. Thus, with only three candidates it will take only two rounds at most to elect the new leader. If McCallister does not win a majority in the first round the supporters of the other two candidates are likely to team up and defeat him in the second round.