And so, as the sun sinks slowly in the West, the figure of Tom Elliott rides off towards the horizon, growing smaller and smaller, until even the faintest twangy echo of his accent has been washed clean of the Ulster Unionist Party. Yes, he had many of the traditional unionist virtues that made the party the force it was for near a century. He was an Orangeman, he had little time for gays, he had less time for the GAA, he spoke his mind, especially when what was on his mind was Sinn Féin scum. In so many ways he should have been a home-and-hosed winner. But he wasn’t. The days of Harry West are dead. You can’t lead a modern party like the UUP if you sound and look as though you’ve just come in from the hayshed. No good in saying you’re an affable, decent man. That stuff on your wellington boots blots out all your other unionist virtues.
So what now? Well, there’s Danny. Mr Kennedy used to be a bit of a culchie too but he’s learned to slick back his hair and murmur into the microphone with the best of them. The fact that the back of your sofa has comparable leadership qualities shouldn’t matter. At least not for about a year or so. That’d give the party breathing space in the Micawberish hope that Something would Turn Up. Alternatively there’s Basil. Now there’s a man with charm. Easy boyish charm, can talk to Shinners and would slide into a seat at a GAA match, probably alongside Barry McElduff, with consummate ease. You wouldn’t get Basil describing people as scum and he’d bounce back from any DUP vitriol like a cheerful cork on choppy Ulster waters. And he probably doesn’t even own a pair of wellies. But leadership qualities? Mmm. Let me have another look at the back of that couch.
Which leaves Mike Nesbitt. Eh? A former TV presenter? Well, Ronnie Reagan was a B movie star and look at the job he did. Besides, this is a TV presenter with brains –Mike was at Cambridge or one of those really smart places. Maybe that’s what give him that quietly authoritative air. When he was on that Victims’ Commission thing, who did the talking for the group? Why, our Mike. Affable, smart, informed – they guy could spout figures for Ireland – sorry, I mean Ulster. And of course totally at home behind a mic, is our Mike. What’s not to like? Give that man the baton, then. Before it’s too late.
Except maybe it already is. Maybe he’s being asked not so much to lead a party as resuscitate a corpse. Perhaps a word with that other learned man, the good Dr McDonnell, would help him see what he faces. You could be a bull in a china shop or a smooth operator, but if the troops you’re leading have been shot to ribbons, and what’s left are weary campaigners who keep peeling off and going independent or simply going home to the wife – well, the term ‘leader’ starts to sound a bit empty.
Barring the never-predictable events, it looks as though the DUP won’t have to wait too long for their Holy Grail of unionist unity. Like old tired soldiers, regardless of who’s their general, the UUP will just fade away. The biggest unionist conglomeration in the state could then become the DUP. Either them or the prod in the garden centre.