With the sudden (and much needed) resignation of Tom Elliot MLA as Ulster Unionist Party leader, the Twitterati cabal have been buzzing with speculation as to who would succeed him ahead of the UUP annual conference at the end of this month. With the party suspected to be in disarray, and with the resignations of David McNarry MLA and a string of Councillor and grass-roots activist defections over the last 24 months (Neil McNickle, Harry Dunlop, David Drysdale, Lesley MaCauley) the rumours appear to be true. So far Minister for Regional Development (the only UUP minister in the NI Executive) has declined to run for leader, surprising many who had their money on Kennedy being a shoe-in for the role. What we have left is a clear choice for the UUP.
Former UTV journalist and broadcaster Mike Nesbitt, a newly elected MLA for the UUP has declared his name as contender for leader, and has ruled out any move by his party to jump 'blindly' into opposition. On the other hand, South Down MLA and deputy leader of the UUP John McCallister has also put himself in for the running, declaring that he will 'immediately' pull the UUP out of the Executive to form an opposition to the DUP/Sinn Fein dominated Assembly.
Nesbitt speaking at the UUP conference, 2011
But what will this mean for the UUP? Well, if Nesbitt wins, the UUP will be subjected to more of the same; a marginal say in how the Government in Northern Ireland is run, a steady decline in their vote under an ineffective leadership with the DUP and newly established NI Conservatives eating away at their core support base. Since Nesbitt has ruled out any intention for the UUP to enter into an opposition to the Executive, the party will continue to have little say in how the Government is run, unless it actively seeks to scrutinize the DUP/SF carve up. This lack of courage on Nesbitt's part, to be content with the UUP's current under-representation in Stormont, may even prompt more defections, such as that of Ballymoney UUP Councillor Bill Kennedy who defected to the DUP's ranks this week.
As a relatively new MLA, Nesbitt lacks experience and is seen as an unknown quanitity, however what the UUP desperately needs is a leader that has personality, is media savvy and can speak well, all things that Nesbitt has and all things that Elliot sorely, sorely lacked. It could well be that Nesbitt is the one man that could unite the party under the banner of a 21st Century leader, able to speak publicly with confidence and charisma. But this remains to be seen.
McCallister speaking at the SF Economic Conference, 2011
McCallister is also one of the few in the Unionist movement that is very outspoken in terms of his pro-gay views, his reiteration of the Unionist position in the face of Sinn Fein strength and his continued support for the LGBT community across Northern Ireland.
Green Party leader Steven Agnew and S.Belfast spokesperson Clare Bailey
However, if elected leader, the real test for his liberal Unionist views will come with the tabling of the Same-Sex Marriage motion submitted by the Green Party's own Steven Agnew MLA. Will the UUP under McCallister or Nesbitt vote to enshrine equality in our province? Or will they vote along DUP lines and vote to defeat it? If McCallister is vehemently opposed to the notion that the UUP fall within the 'orbit' of the DUP, then he will make sure his MLAs vote in favour of it, as I hope the SDLP and Alliance do also.
PUP: Moving forward....but nearly extinct
Either way, the battle lines are certainly drawn and it will be an interesting race, but the big question remains: Will the UUP bounce back from their downward slope and return as a vibrant, alternative Unionist movement within Northern Ireland? Or will they simply disappear into obscurity such as their PUP counterparts?
Only time will tell.