The Alliance Party now has a slight lead in polling over the once largest party in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionists, according to new figures out this weekend by Lucid Talk for the Belfast Telegraph.
The findings come at the end of a difficult year for the Ulster Unionists, with Tom Elliott having resigned as leader in May after less than two years in the job, accusing sections of the party of failing to give him a “fair opportunity” to develop and progress many initiatives he had planned in order to breathe new life into the party.
Elliott’s successor, Mike Nesbitt, has fared little better with a string of damaging events. In October he was forced to sack his deputy, John McCallister, following an outspoken attack on what he saw as the all too regular joint UUP/DUP initiatives, raising the prospects, in McCallister’s words, of the UUP “sleepwalking into unionist unity”.
In August, meanwhile, UUP peer and party grandee, Ken Maginnis, quit the party after Mike Nesbitt had withdrawn the whip from him over words used to object to same sex marriage. It led Maginnis to conclude it was a mistake to elect Nesbitt as leader. The events leading up to this led the UUP to issue a memo to party members telling them not to speak to the media without getting clearance from the party press office.
The latest poll results will do little to cheer the mood at UUP head office this Christmas, not least after remarks made by one of the party’s councillors that the party’s credibility now lies in “tatters”.
In a speech that was not cleared by the party’s press office, Mark McKinty, deputy mayor of Larne - who at 25 is one of the party’s youngest councillors - observed of the state of the party:
“It is sorely disappointing that our party has not launched province-wide campaigns on fuel poverty and prices, the welfare and benefits changes Michael Copeland talked so passionately about only a few weeks ago in the Assembly and equally important jobs, jobs, jobs.
“It is not enough to call for a jobs plan - let’s produce it and use a quality jobs plan to win the hearts and minds of voters to come support the UUP.”
“Our internal media and communications strategy is so detached from voters that journalists now don’t pay attention to our press releases, or indeed to our press conferences. Today, we have dug ourselves into a hole, a hole of irrelevance, and that must end.
“No more press statements for the sake of it. No more reacting and commenting on everything that moves. We need to pick our battles carefully and only pick battles we know we can win as a party, and battles we know can win votes for our party. We desperately need to start talking the language of the people we seek to represent, before it is too late.”
Further numbers from the Belfast Telegraph/Lucid Talk poll put the SDLP up by 1 point to 13.5%; Sinn Fein down by 1.5 points to 26.4%, whilst the DUP remains dominant on steady 30%.
The findings come as both the DUP and Sinn Fein are once again engaged in a ding dong over Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Speaking over the weekend, Gerry Adams called on unionists to join a new constitutional convention in Ireland.
Addressing the Republic’s new Constitutional Convention - a body that will consider and make recommendations on issues such as the length of presidential terms, reductions in the voting age, electoral reform and provisions for gay marriage - Adams said of unionists:
“We should continue to try and persuade them to participate.”
He continued :
“Sinn Fein is for a constitution that embraces all of the citizens of this island especially those who feel themselves to be British. A constitution which builds reconciliation between Orange and Green. A constitution that is part of shaping a new Republic for the 21st century.”
DUP leader and first minister Peter Robinson, meanwhile, has declared nationalism in Northern Ireland to be in “crisis”. Addressing a South Antrim party on Saturday evening, he told those attending that a section of Catholics hold views on social issues, education and the economy which are not reflected in the positions of the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
“There is new political space developing in Northern Ireland. It is the DUP’s aim that unionism will own it and lead it. The people in this space do not fit the stereotypes.
“They are not coming with a textbook nationalist wish-list demanding it be satisfied but rather they want to know what we will deliver for them, their family and Northern Ireland.”
Explaining that the fastest growing section of society is that which classifies itself as “other”, he continued:
“While the reaction of commentators may have erred on the unthinking, the reaction of nationalism has opted for the hysterical. This reaction is not a surprise to me as it reveals where the real political crisis lies – in Irish nationalism.”
He concluded by saying of Sinn Fein’s position on Northern Ireland’s future:
“Their grand plan by their grand strategist Adams has failed. To avoid the hard truths of home he wanders the world trying to convince the ignorant and the gullible that it’ll happen any day now.
“The dirty work of playing the sectarian card he leaves to his henchmen, something he was always wont to do.”