Same Hymn Sheet
I spent today at Antrim Civic Centre where Tom Elliott launched his campaign to succeed Sir Reg Empey as Ulster Unionist leader. Last time I was at the Civic Centre Sir Reg met the Rangers and England striker Mark Hately there, as part of his ill fated attempt to take South Antrim. So not a very good omen. That said, Tom Elliott's launch was a well organised affair, attended by an impressive range of party figures, including the Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, the Deputy Leader Danny Kennedy and the MEP Jim Nicholson. This breadth of support establishes him as the front runner, ahead of Basil McCrea who so far only as his close colleague John McAllister to point to as a standard bearer.
Mr Elliott's two most striking points were his rejection of a single unionist party ("not in my lifetime") and his dumping of the UCUNF Conservative link ("we must not enter an election flying any colours other than our own"). On the surface that would appear to mean both Mr Elliott and Mr McCrea are singing off the same hymn sheet. However the McCrea camp claim that the Elliott team are late converts to their position, given the Fermanagh MLA's association with Rodney Connor's unity candidacy and his participation in the Hatfield House talks.
Mr Elliott said the Conservative government had an obligation to support the UUP in its efforts to undo the aspect of the St. Andrews Agreement which could see Martin McGuinness returned as First MInister should Sinn Fein become the biggest Assembly party next year. Should that issue dominate next year's Stormont elections the UUP might find its vote squeezed still further. However given Mr Elliott would dump the UCUNF link just how obliged will Owen Paterson feel to rewrite the rules?
By contrast, John McAllister expressed scepticism about the chances of any revision of the rules prior to next year's election. Instead, he argued, the UUP must stand on its own merits and, as democrats, accept the result, even if that meant Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister.