Monday, 6 December 2010


So Tom has delivered his first speech as leader.  I was doing some facilitation work on Saturday so missed it all so will examine the official version of his speech.

First the re-arranging of speeches on the day was a necessity built on an error.  With the TV coverage due to end at 1pm the idea the party leader would deliver a speech from 12.40-1.00pm was bad planning.  It needed to be re-arranged and it was on the day.  However, a message of dedicated to delivery isn't helped by last minute re-jigging.  This also necessitated the bumping of the women's slot as it was no doubt originally intended to overcome previous negative comment, the shift ended up provided evidence for it.

As to the speech itself, opening platitudes dealt with in the customary and acceptable manner.  The idea of using the speech as a platform to define himself was obvious and sensible but the manner in which he did so was a mistake.  Political animals underestimate how little attention is paid to a) news and b) those parts of the news they appear on.  Tom's low profile since becoming leader was thus of an advantage - if people hadn't really noticed he was leader (as UTV cruelly pointed out) then they wouldn't have noticed the negative things said about him.  The speech should have been solely the positive defintion of what his politics are. 

However, he listed all the negative things said about him which for some in the TV audience will have been the first time they'd heard them.  This error was summed up by the dinosaur line:

"So let no-one try and say that Tom Elliott is some sort of political dinosaur: for I am not"

This line was a gift to the negative media narrative and it was picked up by both BBC and UTV on the day.

The military service and GAA/Gay rights parade issue were dealt with broadly well.  As to the UUP which he describes as the one he joined I can only say my experience of it was radically different.  He steered a clear pro-power-sharing position.  As to the failures of the Executive it included a number of things people don't really understand or care about e.g. RPA or things that more are happy it was stopped than happened e.g. the white elephant at the Maze.  The future reform of devolved government was in line with the DUP and TUV positions.

The Unionist Unity section, considering the fault-lines within the UUP, was an unsurprising dog's dinner.  The line about short-termism was particularly flawed as it was the UUP's dithering ensured the 2010 attempts were just that.  The real head scratcher was the declaration that:

"This is neither the time nor the platform for a discussion about our relationship with the Conservative Party...That said, I will continue to work to ensure that the Ulster Unionist Party retains a linkage that is beneficial to the Northern Ireland community with the Conservative Party."

A leader's first speech at a party conference six months after a poor Westminster election and six months before an Assembly would seem the perfect moment to set out what it would be. "Linkage" (as is the alternative phraseology "working relationship") is about as clear as mud which will provide all of the problems with less of the benefits. Also a few lines before he seemed to provide a clear answer of what the future held:

"Under my leadership the UUP will be a free-standing party. We will field our own candidates under our own colours and policies: and those candidates and representatives will be accountable to their own Associations and to the Ulster Unionist Executive."

There was an opportunity for clarity but instead confusion is left to prevail as the saga drags on and on. However, it was in the final sections that had the greatest weaknesses. They were constructed too much as a reaction to what the DUP said at its conference - a problem partially created by scheduling but more so by mindset. It is not a means of charting the way ahead by listing what you did in the past (especially when the electorate does not share the positive interpretation of the past) neither is a policy list vision.
As to the jibes against the DUP in the speech they are as Nigel Dodds said at the DUP conference part of what happens at the such events.  However, some exemplified how the UUP still thinks it is fighting (or would prefer to be fighting) the old DUP.

Overall it was a perfectly adequate speech but adequate isn't what the UUP needs.  Some have claimed that it is Elliott's role to steady the ship and from this speech he has adopted that role.  However, that is what Sir Reg Empey's role was, not Tom Elliott's.

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