There is also evidence that the UUP has sought to shake up its leadership team in response to claims that it was too middle aged, middle class and too male. Reg Empy appeared an older, respectable but less dynamic voice for Unionism. Tom Elliott was chosen as his replacement. He was a hard line choice and this put the party in similar grounds to the DUP – he also made several faux pas including calling Sinn Fein ‘scum.’ Yet another leadership change to Mike Nesbitt seems to have made a steadying impact. Under Nesbitt the party seems to have stopped bickering amongst itself and has some members with political vitality such as Jo-Anne Dobson of Upper Bann and Sandra Overend of Mid Ulster who challenge the grey, middle aged and male image of the party.
The UUP has also reviewed its policies in an attempt to establish its distance from the DUP. One of their major problems was that since the DUP mellowed in 2006 the distinction between the two parties was blurred. The UUP needed to create a distinct identity for itself. The Party’s decision to vote against the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010 is evidence of a new approach – they believed that the assembly was not ready for such a responsibility.
Another way in which they tried to make themselves more accessible to the general public was in 2005 by the breaking of links with the Orange Order. The Orange Order formally cut its links with the Ulster Unionist Party, ending 100 years of historical ties. There was also the reform of the Party’s Youth wing, where they tried to appeal to younger voters. This is called the Ulster Young Unionists and it is where Arlene Foster started out – although she has since defected to the DUP.
Another method the UUP used to try and up their votes were electoral pacts. The 2015 Westminster election saw the DUP and UUP looking again at electoral pacts to maximise the Unionist vote. This is a big debate within Unionism, because on one hand it can be very successful. This resulted in the UUP getting two MPs – Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Antrim. South Antrim saw a relatively unknown UUP candidate defeat one of the highest profile DUP candidates – William McCrea. They gained momentum and tells the Unionist people that the UUP may not be a wasted vote. However critics argue that this is merely sectarian politics. Electoral pacts divide Unionism because it makes people question why there are even two parties.
After the 2016 elections the UUP declared that they would form an opposition. This could mean the DUP and Sinn Fein’s days of domination are coming to an end. It remains to be seen how effective this opposition will be, but in theory it could lead to better politics and policy being more aggressively tested. There will now be parties openly heckling and challenging decisions from the outside. First Minister Arlene Foster simply said that the parties were, “searching for relevance,” after their poor election results.
Furthermore, the UUP has experienced success with regards to Europe. They retained their MEP, Jim Nicholson with over 100,000 votes polled. The UUP also announced at the start of March 2016 that they would be pro-EU in the upcoming referendum. This is another thing to separate them from the DUP, who support leaving the EU. They have more of a manifesto in their own right to give the Unionist people identification of difference. The majority of Northern Irish are pro-EU, so this could benefit them.