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?
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs