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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  • Rory Carr

    At the rate of knots that the good ship, UUP has been shedding leaders and prominent members it can only be but a matter of time before Nesbitt’s most memorable quote is likely to be in the order of, “Call me Ishmael.”

  • “Some may even be political reality.”

    Alan, you’ve failed to provide any political context for these quotations so ‘vacillating’ may not be the appropriate term to use for seeming changes in political stance. In terms of tribal reality the UUP and SDLP now find themselves as bit-part players; when the orange or green card is played they don’t have any aces or face cards; the UUP seems to have more jokers than the SDLP though, perhaps Alasdair is more of a joker than Mike.

    “Alliance and the Greens might beg to differ. .. left other voters standing in the middle wanting to abandon tribal urges”

    These parties attract less than 10% of the vote so there’s not much point in either the UUP or SDLP fishing in that small pool. If part of the electorate choses not to vote then it gets the politicians and the politics it deserves.

    “take a stand against tribal voting”

    That is asking the UUP and SDLP to abandon their core meaning; their respective constitutional aspirations. It’s not going to happen; the ‘reaching out’ business is sheer codology within the context of the 1998 Agreement and its subsequent modifications. The competition for the First Minister hat IMO will lead to a further decline in these two parties; the decision to run a unity candidate in Mid Ulster IMO will really put the squeeze on the SDLP’s Patsy McGlone.

  • Nevin – the political context for March 2012 was Mike Nesbitt running for leader; and in February 2013 he’s been defending a joint Mid-Ulster candidate.

    So one was his answer to the theory test that might have been the leadership election, and the others his answer when put under real-life pressure.

    > These parties attract less than 10% of the vote

    LucidTalk’s poll in November suggested: 13.5% Alliance; 11.6% UUP; 11.4% Alliance, no figure for Greens.

    > so there’s not much point in either the UUP or SDLP fishing in that small pool.

    The pool might be bigger than you think if the SDLP and UUP end up having policy-hungry fish already voted for them.

  • Alan, the political context also involves the actions of other parties as well as those of the two governments. Two green cards have been played during the past year: nationalist support for Gerry McGeough and other dissidents and the complete removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall. It’s hardly surprising then that these were countered by orange cards.

    We’ve also had the 1912 Covenant anniversary which suggests a sense of unionist togetherness and the 1916 anniversary is just down the road.

    Do any or many policy-hungry members of the electorate bother to vote? There’s nothing to stop them establishing parties that best serve their interests.

    “Have identity politics lasted such a long time in this corner of Ireland that no alternative is viable?”

    This query is a little curious; it’s placing comments in a nationalist context viz the island of Ireland. I found this to be a major limitation of John Hume’s political analysis.

  • keano10


    Are you for real?

    “The complete removal of The Union Flag from Belfast City Hall”???

    When did that happen then? Certainly not during December’s City Hall vote…

    Also Nationalist support for Gerry McGeough has only once ever been quantified at the ballot box. – When he gained a grand total of 1.8% of the vote in Fermanagh and South Tyrone back in 2007. If you have any evidence to suggest that this paltry level of support for he or other dissidents has increased, then I’d be interested to hear it. It most certainly cannot be found within any recent ballot box…

  • “Are you for real?”

    Yes, keano10.

    AFAIK no mainly nationalist council flies the Union flag; Moyle doesn’t. The nationalist recommendation was for the removal of the flag from Belfast City Hall but the nationalist parties eventually voted for the APNI motion of designated days. If APNI had abstained from the green v orange card encounter then the Union flag would no longer be flying on the City Hall.

    Nationalist party support for Gerry McGeough was ‘quantified’ in Dungannon and South Tyrone Council. I was told that one SDLP councillor voted for the SF motion and the other two were absent. Newton Emerson got into hot water with the BBC when he gave an opinion on the SDLP stance on a Facebook friend’s page; the Irish News took a different position:

    An Irish News source said the paper “does not believe it has any jurisdiction over comments made by a freelance contributor via social media”.

  • Framer

    Thanks for the link Nevin.

    Was only vaguely aware, until now, of the story of Newton Emerson being sacked by the BBC at the behest of the SDLP.

    They certainly don’t like it up ’em, nor indeed does the Beeb.

    Funny I didn’t hear of complaints from the human rights and equality industry or of pickets in Ormeau Avenue.

    Then again, not surprised as they have become sectarianised.

  • Comrade Stalin


    In terms of tribal reality the UUP and SDLP now find themselves as bit-part players;

    Are you arguing that this coincided with Mike Nesbitt’s taking on the leadership ? If not, what exactly has it got to do with Mike changing his stance on unionist unity in the space of one year ?

  • CS, the UUP and SDLP were bit-part players prior to the arrival of Alasdair and then Mike in leadership roles. I haven’t seen either advocating a single unionist or a single nationalist party. On the other hand, there’s nothing novel about a unity candidate within either the unionist or the nationalist families. The OFMDFM is a marriage of inconvenience between the DUP and SF but I see no mechanism that would hog-tie the UUP and SDLP. The fortunes of the latter might or might not improve if they threw up their ministries but they’d probably also have to step aside from the orange v green card routines as well as do the leg-work that would expose the shortcomings of those who retained the ministerial portfolios.

  • I’m a bit puzzled by this comment in Sam McBride’s article:

    Mr Nesbitt forcefully said: “No, it’s not an orange-green contest; it’s a pro-Union…”

    As I understand it ‘orange’ is political shorthand for ‘pro-UK’ and ‘green’ for ‘pro-UI’. Perhaps Mike is thinking of the orange and green religious shorthand for Protestant and Catholic.

  • “Eoin: Fifteen years after the Agreement .. it is disappointing that our politics remains dominated by orange and green issues.”

    Some, indeed, may find it disappointing but the constitutional arrangement and the narrowing constitutional gap ensured such domination and the St Andrews Act reinforced it. As ‘civil society’ is split almost 50/50 where is any lead on economic issues going to come from? The voluntary and community sector is heavily dependent on public funding and that is likely to continue to shrink.

  • FDM

    As a politician I think Mike Nesbitt was great at reading English words that someone else had written down for him from an autocue.

  • “stack up the evidence of significant co-operation, and beg questions about whose self-interest is being served.”

    Alan, I’d have thought it was fairly obvious that unionist parties would co-operate in the pro-UK domain; ditto for nationalist parties in the pro-UI domain. NI remains conditionally part of the UK so, unsurprisingly, when nationalist parties play a green card there will be a reaction to that move. These cards will continue to be played, irrespective of the consequences for the economy or for the safety of minorities in local communities.

    IMO a shared future strategy would require a shared sovereignty arrangement akin to that which I outlined about twenty years ago. In the meantime, I see the UUP-APNI-SDLP vote continuing to shrink and a possible further decline in voter turnout; there’ll be a lot of huffing and puffing on the platform for change but I see no sign of new political rolling stock.

  • FDM, Mikes demolition of SF on the pro-UI issue was a doddle compared with the management of such a loose organisation as the UUP, a body as prone to schism as Presbyterianism. The latter chooses a new front-of-house man once a year – which is probably just as well 🙂

  • FDM


    “Mikes demolition of SF on the pro-UI issue was a doddle”

    I must have missed that special edition of the News Letter. Did they run it as a pull-out insert to the Ulster Tattler?

    Mike likes to tell the story of how his fathers life was irrevocably damaged when his fathers business was destroyed by a bomb. Which is fair enough and do have sympathy for that man. How many peoples lives were changed in the same manner when Mike set his 40,000 “leaflet bomb” off in East Belfast? How many lost their livelihoods then? How many young protestants received criminal records and are now on the road to no-town because of it? I wonder did you or Mike ever stop to consider that? Hypocrites.

    “compared with the management of such a loose organisation as the UUP as prone to schism as Presbyterianism.”

    Just as well republicanism is such a homgeneous cohesive unit, SF, Fainna Fail, Fine Gael, OIRA, PIRA, CIRA, ONH, IPLO, INLA, RSF, etc…

    If it was a straight forward vote between Mike Nesbitt and that other well respected anchor man Ron Burgundy, then big Ron gets it every time. I agree with Rons stance on fighting Bears.

  • Harryaswell

    You can think what you like, but our voting system and party organisations encourage and foster tribalism and, yes, even sectarianism. We have to be realistic and just accept that. SDLP is a socialist inclined party aimed at middle class pro UI Catholics. Sinn Fein is operated by unreconstructed terrorists, so their supporters have to be of similar ilk and are largly working class nationalists, all in favour of a UI. The DUP is conceived through fundamentalist Christian beliefs. The UUP is going through a major refurbishment, and wants to be eventually seen as a pro-Union party, non-sectarian, that anyone will feel free to vote for. Highly laudable. Alliance? Well, after all the hoo ha they caused over the flags one can only wonder what their voters will do next time. Regarding tribalist voting, this is common throughout the world in fact. It is normal. It should be expected. Regarding Unionist Unity, why, surely this is the correct way to go? The more unified one is in politics, the stronger one is. Sadly, the DUP split away from the old Unionist party. This split the vote. Now we see Unionist malcontents, very stupidly IMO, also splitting the vote. For sure, Unionists of ALL persuasions have GOT to get out and persuade their supporters, past, present, and future, to get up and vote! They should be ferried to polling stations by car if necessary! – If not, well, Republicans will certainly win the day and a UI would be almost a certainty. We should be making the Sinn Fein position as insecure as possible, not arguing over semantics.

  • FDM, the demolition of Declan Kearney appeared on TV and Alex Maskey subsequently got similar treatment from others in a later TV programme.

    The nationalist card in Belfast City Hall and the unionist response in the form of the letter you refer to run counter to any good relations policy, shared future and concern for economic livelihood.

  • Otto


    I watched both these interviews and I have to say I missed the “demolition”. All I heard was Mike repeating “sell me a United Ireland” while he stuck his fingers in his ears.

    The answer should really have been “Piss off Mike and stop trying to be the centre of attention. You’re a designated unionist who makes your living rejecting arguments for a United Ireland so I think I’ll appeal to the public.”

    The case for those members of the public who are open to argument (Mike’s not although he thinks it’s good rhetoric to pretend to be) is that in a United Ireland you’ll be richer, happier and healthier and if your kids are bright you’ll have a better chance of seeing them and your grandchildren other than a week or two a year.

    Stay in the union and thanks to Mike’s cynical flag politics you’ll continue to experience economic stagnation, cultural division and watch (or even encourage) your kids leave for GB universities perhaps never to return.

  • “The answer should really have been”

    Otto, ‘should have been’ apparently didn’t occur to Declan or to Alex. Perhaps you should offer your services to SF 🙂

  • FDM


    To be fair my mind is still just blown-away by Mikes “I didn’t even see the leaflets” style comments when the full realisation dawned on him and that other numpty Robinson that they had made a huge miscalculation. Then watched in awe as the two hopped from one foot to the other “I’m against the protests”, “people have a right to protest”, “don’t attend protests”, “UUP members were only there as observers…”, yadda, yadda, yadda. Hypocrites!!!

    “the letter you refer to run counter to any good relations policy, shared future and concern for economic livelihood.”

    Absolutely. By refusing to accept a democratic vote, from the mandated democratically elected institution Mike Nesbitts led UUP and Peter Robinsons DUP chose [again] to drag the loyalist mob onto the streets which has caused greater than 30million pounds damage to our economy and god knows what in brand damage. Never mind the damage to the PSNI, which managed to shift itself in three months back into the protestant nationalist camp and in doing so put the tindle down for the summer firestorm.

    There were actually few positives to come out of the entire debacle. The ones I can think of are here.

    1. Protestant nationalists got the kick in the rear end to inform them [since their leaders won’t do it] that the major changes are starting. Get the tinfoil hat on.

    2. The loyalist rabble can’t drag us back to the likes of the mass disruption of 1974. In terms of numbers they got very, very little support.

    3. “Confident Unionism” was shown in all its nakedness as as an Andersonesque suit of clothes, fit for an emperor.

    4. Unionism was shown to actually mean “Protestant Nationalism”.

    5. Robinson and Nesbitts outreach programme to Catholics was found-out to be a total sham.

    I don’t actually think the PSNI retrenching to its RUC progenitors view of the Catholic community as positive. We need a police force for all. A massive blunder by Baggott and the force in general to not uphold the law equally and proportionately to all sections of our society. Dragged them back 20 years.

  • FDM, I’ve already stated that the unionist and nationalist ‘outreach’ projects are a total sham yet you choose to see just one as such. I’ve also said that the moves by nationalists and unionists on flags were both silly yet you see only one of those too. IMO Naomi Long has shown more wit than any of our other elected representatives.

  • Otto

    I think I might be a United Irishman, Nevin, not a Defender. 😉

    Talking of vacillating Mike did you see this last night?


    Go to the OFM/DFM committee at 23:50 where Mike and Alex are having another bun fight. It was so painful I had to turn over. I’m still not sure whether Mike thinks he’s going on tour or not.

  • FDM


    The facts are that you can be a protestant and a republican. You can be a protestant and an Irish nationalist. You can be a protestant, a republicn and an Irish nationalist. There are examples. Shinnersfrankly do not give a monkeys what religion people are, neither do the SDLP, nor I believe Alliance.

    What the flegs dispute showed was that Unionism was a sham. That at its heart and soul it is ABSOLUTELY NOT about the constitutional question but wholly focussed upon perserving a protestant hegemony in this region of Ireland. Not a single RC attended the Unionist Forum. Not one.

    The BBC polls showed that Catholics could just not bring themselves to vote for the DUP or UUP, whilst some would actually at the present time prefer to have the safety net of a UK economy.

    Protestant nationalism, with its supremacist views, its loyalist paramilitary hangers-on and disgraceful governance history is politically vacant. It has no future in societies which will hopefully continue to mature. All that real Unionists [those that are wholly focussed on the constitutional link with GB] must be praying today that Basil and Johns project hits pay dirt rather than the buffers.

    The DUP and UUP are political zombie parties that feed on hate, fear, sectaranism and bigotry. I just wish we could collectively dial forward “28 years later”…

  • Otto

    “The UUP is going through a major refurbishment, and wants to be eventually seen as a pro-Union party, non-sectarian, that anyone will feel free to vote for. Highly laudable”

    Did you not mean to say highly laughable?

    “what their voters will do next time”

    Vote for Alliance as usual but refuse to make any transfers to Unionists.

  • Otto

    That was for Harryaswell btw.

  • “I think I might be a United Irishman, Nevin, not a Defender.”

    Otto, ‘United Irishman’ was a bit of a misnomer, not least in the 1790s 🙂

    I decided to subject myself to the audio and video recordings. The BBC left the DUP’s Brenda Hale out of the bun-worry 🙂

  • “it is ABSOLUTELY NOT about the constitutional question”

    FDM, nationalist parties of whatever hue are pro-UI therefore their actions against various expressions of unionism are based on constitutional change. Unionists, being pro-UK, will oppose such moves and we end up with a stand-off in the OFMDFM and other areas of political life.

  • FDM


    Of course there are REAL Unionists. I have a lot of time for them.

    Those would be those people who honestly, genuinely believe in maintaining the constitutional link with GB.

    The problem is you don’t find many of them in the DUP or UUP.

    What you find there are protestant nationalists (PNs) who frankly if they were in charge couldn’t give a stuff about GB [as long as they got their handout every year]. Proof? Sure we had 50 years of them in charge and they hardly ever picked up the phone to Westminster and even more rarely was it answered.

    The constitutional link to PNs is a big fat smoke and mirrors job. A convenient mirage.

  • FDM, those who are pro-UK are unionists; those who are pro-UI are nationalists; those who vote, say, for APNI and the Greens could be either or neither; it’s not terribly complicated if you use both eyes for a little bit of perspective.

  • FDM


    I can’t agree. I think recent events exploded that coverall term Unionist because it has been used to conceal ULTERIOR motives.

    Those motives having nothing to do with maintaining the constitutional link with GB.

    Even your terminology pro-UK has problems. I am pro-UK. I want to see the UK do well. I just do not want to be part of it. See?

  • FDM, the pro-UK terminology is just a convenient shorthand for NI’s continuing membership of the UK. If you don’t wish to be part of it you are anti-UK.

  • FDM


    Using YOUR terminology is really putting words in my mouth. So why don’t you use yours and I will use my own.

    America didn’t want to be part of the UK. Are they anti-UK?

    See? Probably not. But if not. Meh. Your terminology not mine.

  • “See? Probably not.”

    FDM, ‘America’ isn’t part of the UK; NI is.

  • FDM


    FDM, ‘America’ isn’t part of the UK; NI is.


    Thanks Nevin. You have now officially bored me to death.

  • No stamina, FDM? I waded through your blarney 🙂