Two political parties held their annual conferences last month: the Ulster Unionists in Belfast, and the Scottish National Party in Perth. Both of these relatively minor parties of the UK face major regional battles in 2014.

But there the similarities appear to end. And there’s more to it than the obvious unionism of one and nationalism of the other.

Let’s start with the conferences themselves. Mike Nesbitt opened with a swipe at his rivals: “When we say never, never, never, we mean never, ever, ever.” He was referring to the DUP’s U-turn on a Peace Centre at the Maze Prison. The hall may have loved Nesbitt’s twist of Paisley’s signature words, but onlookers may not be so easily impressed.

Alex Salmond, meanwhile, got straight to the point. “We’ve travelled a significant way, but we still have a job to do.” He was addressing his party faithful, but was focused on the need to sell a positive message to the broader audience: the people of Scotland.

In fact, the audience couldn’t help but fix its eyes on its task ahead. A second-by-second countdown told the crowd that a mere 333 days and 15 hours stood between it and the all-important referendum. ‘Forward’ adorned the First Minister’s lectern. In an at-times theatrical address, the script did indeed match the set.

Mr Nesbitt’s point of reference was the past; Mr Salmond’s was the future.

Nesbitt did begin, however, to look forwards. The problem is that it can be difficult to take his words seriously.

He commendably proposed an international mental health facility to be based in Belfast. But while he emphasised, “this centre is for everyone,” he found time to remind delegates that republicans killed twice as many victims as loyalists. What does a ‘them and us’ numbers game add to his rhetoric on inclusion?

He commendably declared that “the future is about building a warm house for every section of our society.” But one lady’s sole applause of enthusiasm drew attention to the initial passivity of her fellow delegates.

He commendably told his party, “It’s time to get on the front foot,” but yet over the past year alone the UUP has embraced unionist unity in Mid Ulster, abandoned its designated days flag policy, and appeared to apologise for the Good Friday Agreement.

Perhaps Mike Nesbitt summed up his problem by declaring, with a touch of Bushism, “The future will replace the past as the place to be.” It sounds good, but means nothing.

The SNP Leader did himself indulge in a degree of romantic rhetoric. But, crucially, he did more than this: he spoke with obvious passion and authority.

Support for independence has flat-lined at around 25%. But in many ways that doesn’t matter. Scots still support the SNP as a party even though they look set to reject its flagship policy. When Salmond boldly declared, “Our time is now,” he was speaking about more than delivering an independent Scotland.

In the short-term the SNP will probably lose its ‘yes’ campaign, while the UUP may just cling on to its seat in the European Parliament.

In the long-term, however, the SNP will already be preparing to dust off any embarrassment from defeat to negotiate with a strong case for additional devolved powers for Scotland; it has the potential to re-position itself with a renewed purpose. For the UUP, questions over its long-term relevance won’t subside anytime soon.

 

Make your own mind up:

Mike Nesbitt’s 2013 Conference speech is available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03gvszy/Ulster_Unionist_Party_Conference_Ulter_Unionist_Party_Conference_2013_Mike_Nesbitt/

You can find Alex Salmond’s address at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfHEYMZhrzw

  • Richard James

    It’s generally regarded as good form for a commentator to declare their interests so the audience knows whether it is dispassionate analysis or partisan axe grinding. So come forward Jamie Pow, research analyst for NI-21 and Secretary of Conservative Future NI.

    With this in mind, we can turn to Pow’s weasel wording. He tries to insinuate Mike Nesbitt’s references to numbers killed by republican terrorists in comparison to loyalists was a “them an us numbers game”. Nesbitt was actually talking about attempts by Sinn Fein to draw a moral equivalence between state forces and the IRA, citing these figures to show responsibility for deaths in the troubles lies overwhelmingly with terrorists. Mike goes onto say that there is no moral difference between the UVF’s attack on McGurk’s Bar and the IRA’s Enniskillen bomb.

    Another disingenuous turn is taken with Jamie’s claim the UUP apologised for the Belfast Agreement. Nesbitt’s comments were an acknowledgement that the unionist community went through a lot of hurt with prisoner releases and police reform. Alongside a protracted decommissioning crisis this caused the unionist electorate to lose faith in the UUP. Acknowledging these grievances is vital for the UUP in rebuilding trust with former voters. David Cameron and the Conservatives went through a similar process, although it is difficult to imagine Pow claiming that was a repudiation of Thatcherism.

    However Jamie does deserve some credit for showing enough nous not to talk up either of the political parties he is involved in as a rival to the UUP 😉

    • Jamie Pow

      Thank you for your comment, Richard.

      I agree that a commentator should declare his or her interests. As you will notice, I have enabled a link to my LinkedIn account which accompanies any post I make (see icon at bottom of the page). For anyone who wishes to see more about my background, they are entirely free to do so, and will discover for themselves that I have been a research analyst for NI21. Moreover, as Nick Robinson doesn’t sign off every piece of his work with a word on his university involvement in the Conservative Party, I will follow his example. But I certainly make no secret of either involvement.

      I watched Mike Nesbitt’s conference speech in full, and I can see the point Nesbitt was trying to make. However, my interpretation of the way it was delivered was precisely a republican/loyalist/state numbers game. Yes, it did illustrate some further points, but I felt the comment sat uneasily with regard to the more positive aspects in the second-half of his speech. He could have made the point in a different way, but chose a numeric basis to initiate his argument.

      Secondly, on 21 January 2013 the UUP voted in favour of a DUP amendment which dropped a call for parties to support the ‘spirit’ of the Good Friday Agreement. I felt this was a backward step, and sent the wrong message at a crucial time in the wake of December’s flag protests. That this amounted to a total ‘apology’ of the Agreement is not what I suggest, but it created such a perception. Hence, I wrote that the party “appeared to apologise” for the Agreement.

      I do not expect everyone to agree with my analysis, and I thank you for reading the article in the first place.

      • Richard James

        Jamie,

        Tad conceited comparing oneself to Nick Robinson 😉 However the analogy does not bear up to scrutiny.

        If Nick Robinson was currently a paid employee of the Conservative Party, it would be a gross breach of public trust if the BBC were not to inform its audience of this fact when he was reporting on the Tories political rivals.

        They certainly wouldn’t be able to dismiss such objections with fatuous references to his LinkedIn profile.

        If this blog is committed to transparency and integrity then the audience should be clearly informed when reading a piece attacking a political party that it has been written by an employee of a rival political party.

        • Jamie Pow

          I stand by the analogy, and would like to clarify that I am not a paid employee of the Conservative Party (and never have been), nor am I currently employed by NI21. Therefore, I am not writing this blog as an “employee of a rival political party,” and hold no position in either. I am writing this blog as a Politics student with an interest in current affairs, and who has certain views about the world – as everyone does.