22/10/2013 10:13 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The UUP: Ulster's Unexpected Progressives?

Whenever a political party's annual conference takes place, one can look forward to nothing but speeches, applause at regular intervals, speeches, workshops, goody bags filled with pens and branded notebooks, and maybe a speech. It's like Christmas for politicos, and last week's UUP Annual Party Conference at Belfast's Ramada Hotel was no different.

Like Christmas, there's usually a highlight to an event that we look forward to seeing. This year's political Christmas for the Ulster Unionists was the speech all party members - including the attending media types - were waiting for; the speech of party leader, Mike Nesbitt.

Something that many attendees might not have expected, however, was how Nesbitt warmly spoke about groups in Northern Irish society, groups that many Unionist politicians have either dismissed or berated. He made reference to Irish Republicans when speaking about a Northern Ireland that would be a "warm house" for all. He also made reference to minorities in the UK, such as the immigrant community (with specific mention of Britain's Asian community) and even a surprising reference - albeit a brief one - to the gay community. Nesbitt used inclusive language that would make his party seem completely tolerant and inclusive to the uninitiated, and he was fully aware of what he was doing.

Why is it, in that case, would such references be considered important, if some cynics would dismiss them as nothing more than political tactics? The answer: Because the 'other party' doesn't even come close to being perceived as tolerant or inclusive. Many members of the 'other party' have been accused of racism, homophobia and - of course - sectarianism. That other party, of course, is the DUP. For that reason alone, it seems that Nesbitt wants to take his party down a road that the DUP does not walk. That is the road of inclusion; a road which other parties like Alliance, SDLP and more recently, NI21, have travelled.

For those in the UUP, especially the party's older members, there's a chance that Nesbitt's efforts could be considered as risky. Some of the more hardline Unionists would consider Dublin as foreign a city as Dubai, and that very attitude could be what will slow down any progressive changes within the UUP. With a little humour mixed into his speech, however, Nesbitt might have just been able to soften the minds of those die-hards:

"I'm an Ulsterman. I'm also British, but I don't want to miss out on my Irishness. The sort of Irishness that makes me think very un-Christian thoughts when the England rugby team are in Dublin..."

Regardless of the "sort of Irishness" that Nesbitt meant, the fact that he made such a statement at that moment in time was not insignificant. He acknowledged that an Ulster Unionist can subscribe to an Irish identity, while standing beside the Union flag and speaking in front of a large delegation of UUP members.

There was some laughter to be heard when Nesbitt made his rugby comment. The laughter wasn't loud, however, and that suggests something else; that if Nesbitt's humorous acknowledgment of his Irishness displeased some of his members and colleagues, then any intentions to make the party more inclusive and understanding would be difficult to achieve. There is, however, a unionist party that already seems to be that inclusive and understanding, and that is NI21 - the new 'pro-Union' party established by Basil McCrea and John McCallister, both former members of the UUP. With such a connection, there's every chance that Nesbitt and his friends have paid close attention to NI21's actions. John McCallister has spoken at two Sinn Féin events recently; one in Carlingford, County Louth, and the other in London. Meanwhile, Basil McCrea has spoken out in favour of gay rights issues - such as adoption rights, Northern Ireland's gay blood ban and same-sex marriage - numerous times, both in Stormont and to the media. Both McCrea and McCallister are showing the public that Unionists are able to be sensible, approachable and most of all, progressive.

At the end of the UUP Annual Conference, delegates would have walked out of the Ramada Hotel and onto the streets of Belfast, possibly inspired by some of the things their politicians would have said, not least the words of their party leader. What remains to be seen, however, is how inclusive and accepting Mike Nesbitt's language will be, when he returns to his seat in Stormont.