Nesbitt:”This is about the Union, this is about putting Unionism first, this is about the good of Northern Ireland.” #UUP2014

Yesterday as the Ulster Unionist conference wrapped up I sat down with the party leader, Mike Nesbitt to discuss the last election, Unionist unity and the party’s prospects for the upcoming Wesminster election.

I began by asking him about the last election, how did he feel about the UUPs moderate improvement from 2011?

Well I wasn’t looking at the percentage, I was looking at the total number of people getting elected and we got 99 and that is the equivalent of 78 super councillors. So, if we had got less than that I would have been really disappointed.

I was intrigued, if the party had done so well at council level, why had that not carried over into Europe?

Nesbitt told me that the believed that people were mostly protesting  in this election. He argued that if you looked at the full slate of Unionist candidates, the most pro-European of them was Jim Nicholson. Given the anti-European sentiment that was out there amongst the electorate, Nesbitt believes that Nicholson actually put on a “hell of a show” to achieve the result that he did.

I put to him the critique that he only achieved the result that he did by shifting the UUP to the right and had walked away from the Trimble legacy of the Good Friday Agreement?

I would say they’re wrong, the first thing that needed to be done was to get stability into the party and then to get a bit of faith back into the party. In that context issues come along so, when the flag came down over City Hall that becomes a pressing but also an issue that you cannot look beyond.

Nesbitt argued that the flag vote had actually disrupted things such as the working group which was examining the reform of Stormont and has not actually met since early December 2012.

Now the big question of Unionist unity and understanding proposed to the DUP in his conference speech. I argued to him would it not make more sense politically to offer the DUP a clear run in East Belfast in return for their support for the UUP in Fermanagh/South Tyrone?

That only makes more sense if you’re putting the UUP first and I made it clear that this is about the Union, this is about putting Unionism first, this is about the good of Northern Ireland. It’s not an Ulster Unionist understanding that I am proposing, what I am saying is that Belfast has four constituencies, not that long ago three of them were in Unionist hands, today one is because the DUP lost East Belfast last time, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that on May 8th there will be no Unionist representing Belfast. So, it is a pro-Union deal to say we could see our way to supporting you to hold on in North Belfast and keep Sinn Fein out, if you’ll support us trying to get Sinn Fein out in Fermanagh and give the people of Fermanagh an MP who is going to do the full service, go into the House of Commons and the rest of it.

But, was he still considering East Belfast?

I was with our East Belfast management committee on Tuesday night and we were initiating the process for the selection of an Ulster Unionist candidate.

Outside of a deal with the DUP, what were the seats that he hoped the UUP could potentially take off them?

Nesbitt unsurprisingly cited South Antrim and Upper Bann as the two target seats for the party. He believed that an unfortunate set of circumstances with divisions in some areas and DUP scare tactics in others hurt the UUP in winning back both of those seats. However, he does believe that Jo-Anne Dobson and Danny Kinahan have an excellent shot at bringing both seats back into the UUP column next May.

As we got into the battle between the UUP and DUP, I was interested to know what Nesbitt thought about the state of Unionism 10 years after his party was overtaken by their main rivals?

I think the difference is the UUP do the right thing for NI, the DUP do the right thing for the DUP. How good have they been for Unionism and NI? Go back and look at their manifestoes in 2011 and particularly 2007 where they make boasts about levels of public confidence in the Union and ask yourself have they enhanced that?

 

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  • Ernekid

    Did anyone else see Mark Cosgrove filling in for Nesbitt who was mysteriously absent on the Sunday Politics? Mark Carruthers tore him apart. He epitomised the totally muddled position of the UUP. They are totally contradicting themselves and either Nesbitt hasn’t noticed or simply doesn’t care.

    What’s the point of the UUP anyway?

  • Gaygael

    I agree ErneKid. mike is riding two horses. The moderate ‘liberal’ unionist one, and the out dup the dup one. Sooner or later he is going to have to choose. I think that choice would have been hastened had NI21 not imploded so disastrously as they would have push him of the liberal horse.

    It’s a vehicle for people who can’t bring themselves to vote for the DUP but still want to register a unionist preference. Interesting that mike didn’t appear today himself and they choose cosgrove, who wasn’t very strong. Why not Kinahan or Dobson? Maybe the party doesn’t want them pushing this mixed message?

  • The Lagan

    Its less about the union and more about maximising PUL returns.

  • tmitch57

    Gaygael, what you said about the UUP electorate reminds me of the white electorate in South Africa in the final decades of white rule. Thanks to a rule that heavily loaded the game in favor of the National Party by requiring 10% fewer voters for rural constituencies than for urban constituencies, the National Party replaced the United Party as the ruling party in 1948. Over the next thirty years the margin of difference grew progressively wider as the United Party lost its distinct identity and became a me-too party in favor of most apartheid measures. In 1959 the liberal wing of the United Party split off to form the Progressive Party and in 1974 finally had a breakthrough election when they won six seats. In the next election they replaced the United Party as the official opposition. The United Party gave up its name and became the New Republic Party, which forced many older voters to think instead of automatically pulling the UP lever. The NRP became a one-province party restricted to the mostly English-speaking Natal province on the Indian Ocean coast. Within a decade the Progressive Federal Party had driven the NRP out of business. I predict that the same fate awaits the UUP. Most of the NRP’s voters were older English-speaking whites and the party lost voters as its older voters literally died off and weren’t replaced by younger voters who instead went to either the National Party or the PFP. The UUP will see younger “unionist” voters splitting between the DUP and Alliance.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Mitch
    Do you think the UUP could gain (long term) by adopting a more liberal approach and ditching the word ‘Ulster’ from their name?

    As they can’t out-fleg the TUV and can’t out DUP the DUP so what’s left?

    Certainly on this very site it was highlighted that there is now a dearth of suitable unionist parties for people who wish to vote pro-union but want nothing to do with all the Orange trappings/flegginess that political unionism normally entails or mingles with..

  • tmitch57

    AG, by dropping the word Ulster from its name the UUP is risking a repeat of the United Party’s debacle. Presumably it would have three new name choices: a) becoming simply the Unionist Party; b) becoming the Northern Ireland Unionist Party; and c) reverting to its old name of the Official Unionist Party. Both a and c would look presumptuous and arrogant considering that the UUP is actually much smaller in terms of representation than the DUP. Changing its name to the NIUP might help marginally to win support from Catholic unionists or pro-Union voters, but there are probably not too many of these to begin with who aren’t already voting for the UUP. Most pro-Union Catholics probably vote for either Alliance or the SDLP and some may even vote for Sinn Fein. Plus, becoming the NIUP suggests the small Assembly party from the late 1990s when the UKUP split and might provoke unfavorable comments in the media on that score from DUP pols.

    Dropping the Orange connection and fleggism might form the basis of a new party, but this would be a splinter from the UUP rather than the UUP itself. This presumably was what John MacAllister intended NI21 to be, but Basil McCrea and Tina McKenzie (“I’ve done more for bringing about political change than Alliance did.”) had other plans. Any new unionist party would be equally vulnerable to poor decisions by its leadership.

  • Bryan Magee

    Should the two unionist parties consider having open postal primaries in those (two) constituencies where they would like to field a single candidate? That way the electorate decides who stands in each seat – e.g. in FST you could have the UUP candidate and the DUP candidate in the open primary, and whoever wins that goes on to be the candidate.