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ANALYSIS: Nesbitt has given Ulster Unionists hope

IT'S difficult to consider the fortunes of the modern Ulster Unionist Party without making comparisons with the SDLP.

Members of the latter who watched the  UUP conference on television were surely envious of the confidence and cohesion on display.

It was a far cry from the acrimony and shouts of ‘Lundy’ that characterised such get-togethers 15 years ago.

The UUP and SDLP took great risks for peace and power-sharing only to be punished by the electorate and superseded in government.

Until very recently it looked like both were suffering a steady, terminal decline, a trend best illustrated by the UUP’s lack of representation on the green benches of the British parliament - heading into the Good Friday Agreement negotiations it had no fewer than 10 MPs.

But in the wake of May’s Westminster election and victory in two seats, it seems Mike Nesbitt’s party is enjoying a fillip.

The SDLP, while retaining its three MPs in the same election, is not witnessing a corresponding lift and is in the midst of a potentially damaging leadership contest.

It would be wrong to attribute all the Ulster Unionists’ recent success to the former UTV anchorman but he can take credit for much of it.

He has faced down dissent, shown leadership and when necessary distinguished his party from its main rival.

The DUP didn’t help itself whatsoever during the recent in-out ministers episode but Mike Nesbitt played the fiasco to his full advantage.

Detractors will likely call his conference speech smug and hubristic, while supporters will say it was polished and assured.

As we’ve come to expect, it was delivered professionally and went beyond mere box-ticking for the faithful audience.

There was the obligatory name-check for the armed forces and the UUP leader continued to labour his incredulity at the IRA army council’s continued existence.

But his hardline stance enabled him to display a liberal tendency elsewhere, while omitting mentions of unionist totems such as parades and flags.

Time will tell whether remarks about the Irish language and the party being “behind history” on same-sex marriage indicate a shift to a more socially tolerant brand of unionism that could encourage disillusioned voters out of garden centres.

The challenge now is to maintain recent momentum and, when the election comes around, to take assembly seats from the DUP.

The prospect of the UUP once again becoming the foremost voice for unionism is some way off but at the very least Nesbitt has given the party hope.

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