Friday 15 November 2019
Last week, I started my series of election opinions and first up was the Alliance Party. This week, it's the turn of Steve Aiken's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
The UUP have had it tough the past couple of years. Since 2005, when they were overtaken by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland politics, the party has struggled to find its voice and a new brand to win back that coveted spot as the biggest unionist party. In fact that point has been reinforced at the last couple of elections: in the 2017 Assembly Election, the party ended up with just 10 seats while in the general election that year, they lost their two MPs to the DUP and Sinn Fein (SF). Then in 2019, the UUP lost dozens of seats in the council elections before losing their seat in the European Parliament in the European elections. So it's fair to say things haven't exactly gone to plan then.
Another thing that hasn't helped the UUP is the constant changes in their leadership. After the 2017 elections, Mike Nesbitt resigned and was replaced by Kells-born Robin Swann. He then stepped down in Sepember after two years at the helm and has now been replaced by South Antrim MLA Steve Aiken. One of the biggest factors for a political party affecting how they perform an election is how their leader is viewed and it's pretty safe to say that the UUP's previous leaders don't seem to have been viewed that well by voters. The question is can Steve Aiken change that in this election?
For me, the Ulster Unionists are certainly in with a shot of taking two seats in this general election, South Antrim held by the DUP's Paul Girvan and Fermanagh and South Tyrone held by SF's Michelle Gildernew.
South Antrim was previously won by the UUP's Danny Kinahan in 2015 but was lost to the DUP in the 2017 general election and he is certainly in with a chance of winning back the seat from his unionist opponent. However standing in his way is the Alliance Party who would appear to have a good bit of momentum behind them. Question is, how might that affect the result come polling day.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone was won by Tom Elliott for the UUP in 2015 also but again was lost to SF in 2017. Once again, Elliott is in contention to try and win the seat back again but he faces a tough contest from Sinn Fein despite the DUP having agreed to stand aside for him to try and maxmise the unionist vote. This will certainly be a one to watch come December 13.
By far the biggest problem for the UUP has been their mixed messaging on Brexit. Under Robin Swann, they were pro-Brexit but now under Steve Aiken, they seem to be both for and against Brexit at the same time. They say that if the only offer on the table is Boris Johnson's deal then they would support remaining in the EU but if there was something different on the table that might be good for Northern Ireland in their view, then they may support it. Problem is that mixed messaging and being seen to be unclear can ultimately cost you votes.
The UUP are one of those parties you can't be certain what will happen to. We'll simply have to wait to election day to find out if Steve Aiken will get an early present as the new leader of his party.