Mike Nesbitt vacillating on policy and unionist co-operation over the last twelve months

Modern politicians must sometimes read biographies of past politicians and long to have lived and worked in a world where only major speeches were reported and their every word wasn’t recorded, indexed and placed in the public filing cabinet that is the internet.

Nesbitt: policy liteHere’s a selection of what UUP Mike Nesbitt has been saying about policies and unionist co-operation over the last twelve months.

15 March 2012Over the weekend I was reminded that Mike Nesbitt launched his UUP leadership campaign saying:

I know much of the focus [in the leadership race] will be on policies, not Leadership skills, so for the record, I do not favour a blind leap into Opposition, while there is no formal framework to accommodate it. I sense many of our citizens are not convinced they are getting value for money from paying MLAs to govern. It would be a big step to ask them to pay MLAs who voluntarily give up the responsibility of governing, especially in the week we are offered an 11% pay rise …

As for Unionist Unity, I have no objection to a debate on what that means, but after so many years as a broadcast journalist, interviewing senior DUP figures, and my more recent experience of fielding their inventive in the Assembly Chamber, I am entirely sceptical about what would motivate them to call for co-operation beyond self-interest.

25 March 2012 – Six days before the leadership vote, Mike Nesbitt blogged:

When we offer better policies, better communicated, and a better organisation, better resourced, we can hit the ground and work hard to reconnect with the tens of thousands of pro-union voters who feel they currently do not have a party to support or to represent them. If we can hold our core vote and attract the disaffected, we are back in business.

31 March 2012 – In his final speech at the UUP AGM before the vote, he was categorical:

By the way, there is no such thing as Unionist Unity. And I am glad there isn’t. I don’t want to be a super-Prod. I want to be a super Unionist.

A joint candidate alone does not equate to unionist unity. Though joint leaflets, joint press statements, joint photo opportunities gurning at babes and eating ninety nines, on top of a Unionist Forum and a joint candidate does begin to stack up the evidence of significant co-operation, and beg questions about whose self-interest is being served.

The UUP members were promised policies:

There is no point having the best policies, if you don’t have the power to put them into practice. Worse, if you don’t have power, others will steal your policies, and your clothes …

I will form a series of Policy Advisory Groups … I’ll make it part of every Spokesperson’s duties to travel the country, listening to you, as you identify the local solutions that will best make policy real.

20 February 2013 – Eleven months later, Mike Nesbitt was interviewed by Sam McBride in the News Letter. Policies seemed a lot less important:

When it was put to Mr Nesbitt that some people may wish to vote based on policies about all sorts of issues – from taxation to abortion to gay marriage or other things important to individual voters – the UUP leader said: “I don’t think you’ve ever had a situation in Northern Ireland where people vote for a particular candidate because of their position on abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, the death penalty. I think people have tended over the years to vote orange and green.” …

“I don’t think people say: You’re pro-Union, I’m pro a united Ireland but you’re pro-abortion so I’m going to switch to be a pro-Union voter. I just don’t think there’s any evidence of that in terms of how people have voted down the years.

“I find that actually quite an extraordinary assertion.”

He added: “People don’t join political parties because of these issues.

Alliance and the Greens might beg to differ.

Surely these are the sorts of issues which politicians are elected to decide?

“Interestingly, I’ve only stood twice [for election] but I’ve never ever been asked about any of these issues. The issues that I’ve stood on have been the economy, education, health, housing, culture, identity and primarily: Are you pro-Union or pro a united Ireland?

The UUP leader went on to comment:

“I’m at a loss here. We’re talking about an election where we are saying to the people: We’re hearing what you’re saying; you’d like a single pro-Union candidate, we’ve found you one that people are happy with – are there going to be people coming out in droves saying ‘I’m anti-corporation tax, where’s my candidate’? I can’t see it.”

Mike Nesbitt reiterated that in his “experience as a journalist going back to the 1987 General Election” he saw “no evidence” that “people vote on things like abortion”.

25 February 2013 – Lastly, an interview with Mike Nesbitt by John Manley was published yesterday in the Irish News – a moment of rare unionist disunity as the DUP’s Peter Robinson still refuses to grant the paper an audience.

[Mike Nesbitt] accepts the prospect of a unionist victory is “very, very slim” but believe it is more likely if only one pro-Union candidate is fielded.

On attracting catholic voters and the UUP’s lurch back towards traditional [tribal?] unionism:

When asked what might make a traditional Irish News reader cast their vote for the UUP, he is less than clear, saying his party needs to show strength and cohesion like the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Mr Nesbitt concedes that some of the things he’s doing, like supporting the Unionist Forum, would make readers of The Irish News “nervous”.

“Is this an attempt to go back to old-style politics?” he asked rhetorically. “To a certain extent I don’t think we actually moved away from old-style politics.”

He justifies the Unionist Forum by saying that since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, the “unionist community” had yet to sit down together and agree that it, and subsequent political deals at St Andrews and Hillsborough were “the best way forward”.

He likens it to the Hume-Adams talks which outlined broad areas of agreement between nationalists and republicans.

“That gives us strength, not in terms of brawn to go and fight the quote-unquote other side but strength in saying we don’t have to look over our shoulders like David Trimble did to see if everybody was following him,” he says.

What about his claim that there was a “chip, chip, chipping away” of British culture in Northern Ireland and the prospects for the marching season?

When pressed for evidence of an erosion of Britishness, he is unable to offer anything tangible beyond Irish street signs and erroneous rumours about talk of changing the name of the Royal Victoria Hospital. He insists it is a perception

“But perceptions are everything in this country,” he said, citing a widespread unionist notion of a “concession a day” to Sinn Fein. …

On the prospect of increased tension around parading this summer, he points out that he is the first UUP leader not to be a member of the loyal order and calls for “us all to go beyond mutual respect to the point “where we offer a true spirit of generosity to all”.

It’s a mixed bag of quotes from speeches and interviews. Not all of it is contradictory. Some may even be political reality. But the recent words lack the clarity of his leadership bid, and point to a party (and a leadership) that lack a keel or a rudder to resist being buffeted by the waves.

Mike Nesbitt is the one party leader who is all over the local press at the moment. In the week leading up to the Alliance conference – when David Ford will be granted his allotment of column inches – surely the UUP leader has frittered away his opportunity to differentiate the UUP from its rivals? With his hands bound by a shared candidate who may or may not end up supporting UUP (never mind DUP) dogma, he has waived his chance to talk about policies and instead put his political energies behind a campaign that he over-optimistically admits has only a “very, very slim” chance of a victory.

In a country where “perceptions are everything”, Mike Nesbitt is failing to live up to his leadership promise of “better policies, better communicated”. At the moment it looks like the UUP is powerless and has therefore abandoned policies.

Saying that people don’t vote on policy makes a mockery of the time (if not trees) sacrificed by the UUP to create the 106 page Westminster 2010 and 40 page Assembly/Local Government manifestos.

Perhaps the UUP would have fewer (ex)members failing to renew their membership – never mind more potential voters – if they had better defined and more frequently rehearsed policies.

Perhaps true political leadership would be for the party to take a stand against tribal voting – both at the ballot box and inside the Assembly through the use of petitions of concern – and to make a pitch to the electorate to wrestle with the devolved issues that will affect the lives of their families, colleagues and communities.

While the current flags debacle may have upped the speed of the Northern Ireland political centrifuge and pulled some people back to the extreme edges, perhaps it has also left other voters standing in the middle wanting to abandon tribal urges and make a stand on policies.

Will Alliance, the Greens and clutch of independent unionists be the only vehicles for marking that change at election time? Have identity politics lasted such a long time in this corner of Ireland that no alternative is viable?

(Illustration from Brian John Spencer’s post last April)

Update – Eoin Rooney recently posted along a similar line over at NICVA’s blog.

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