The UUP held its annual conference this weekend and newly-minted leader Mike Nesbitt wanted to present a new face to the media. First, he spoke about the party going into the role of the official opposition if such a role were created within the consociational power-sharing structures that have been in place since 1999. Second, he declared the party to be non-sectarian and open to Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, and atheists alike. This is certainly a different party than that of Lord Brookeborough who spoke of a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people. But how much of a difference is this likely to make in the short term?
First, he would have to win the backing of London to change the rules of the game. This would most likely be in the face of opposition from the ruling Sinn Fein/DUP dyarchy who benefit from the sectarian structure in which other parties are forced to either buy-in to the government or be left with nothing. At a minimum he would have to convince the SDLP to support his demands if not Alliance as well. Alliance is likely to support this demand.
But the SDLP would probably be hesitant as it has in the past been reluctant to take on the Republican Movement since the first IRA ceasefire went into effect in September 1994. That was three leaders ago, but the party has yet to demonstrate any real courage. Both John Hume and Mark Durkan refused to vigorously back the unionists in their demand that the IRA (and loyalist paramilitaries) disarm. And if Dr. Alasdair McDonnell thought that his reward would be to have the UUP poaching on his territory to lure away secular nationalist voters he might be even more reluctant. After all, Alliance is largely restricted to the Greater Belfast area but the UUP has party branches throughout the province. It could potentially be a real threat.
So even if Nesbitt is finally demonstrating courage, it might be too late for the party. Unless he can effect a de-facto alliance with the SDLP, something which eluded both David Trimble and Reg Empey in the past, the party will be stuck in its present cage. He might begin by holding secret talks with McDonnell and offering such an alliance with the proviso that the UUP won't actively attempt to recruit new Catholic members if the SDLP goes along with it in supporting an official opposition role. Of course, if McDonnell refuses all bets are off.