Mike Nesbitt on Gavin Robinson, David Simpson, good grace and polls

In the aftermath of the Westminster Election the UUP are now back in the House of Commons. Writing for Slugger, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mike Nesbitt writes for us about election night and hits back at the DUP’s David Simpson.

UK-wide, the 2015 General Election has been defined by the Conservative’s outright win, the tsunami of momentum behind the SNP and the failure of pundits and pollsters to call it right.

Here, the latter also featured, but to me, the local 2015 campaigns were partially defined by how the candidates brought them to a close. I was in the Valley Leisure Centre in Newtownabbey when Danny Kinahan ended our barren years, and I was extremely proud of his acceptance speech; it was a model of humility, grace and commitment to five years of public service to all.

And the next speaker was equally worthy of praise. The Reverend William McCrea demonstrated huge poise and magnanimity in defeat. As someone who found themselves in that position in 2010, I can testify it is not a pleasant place to be and you have to dig very deep to do what the Rev McCrea did in accepting the public had decided they preferred someone else.

And then the wheels came off. In Belfast, Gavin Robinson lost the plot. Others think the mask slipped, but I prefer to reserve judgement and allow for an error in judgement. I have known him a long time: his mother is my cousin. But either way, he has done damage that will be remembered throughout the mandate and leaves him with work to do.

But Gavin Robinson’s attitude was as nothing to David Simpson in Banbridge. Grace? Humility? Respect for others? I think not. I challenged Mr Simpson to provide evidence to back his allegations regarding alleged comments and behaviour by members of my Party. I promised I would not be found wanting. I assured him if he proved anyone had acted in the manner he was insinuating, I would personally drive to their home, refund their annual membership fee and dismiss them forthwith. He has produced no credible evidence, and the only name he has named is that of Colin McCusker. I have spoken to Mr McCusker; he has no case to answer. I believe Mr Simpson knew that all along, because anyone can read his Open Letter and see he uses the word “if” when suggesting Mr McCusker may have stepped out of line. I repeat, Colin did not.

Newsletter front pageWhat is extraordinary is Mr Simpson’s assertion that members of my Party acted in a manner that he describes as “unprofessional to say the least”. How surprising! Surely Mr Simpson’s memory stretches back to the 2001 General Election?

If not, here is a reminder. The Belfast Newsletter’s front page of Saturday 9 June 2001 captions a photograph of Mr Simpson as “Bitter Loser: DUP man David Simpson” and the opening two paragraphs of the newspaper’s report reads as follows:

First Minister David Trimble had to run the gauntlet of DUP supporters last night as the General Election turned ugly.

The Ulster Unionist Leader was led to safety by police and aides from the Banbridge counting centre, in his Upper Bann constituency as up to 200 people crowded round him, many aiming punches and kicks in his direction.

Returning to the role of pundits and pollsters, Mr Simpson’s campaign received a massive boost when the Portadown Times published the results of an opinion poll in its last pre-election edition. This poll played to the DUP narrative that a vote for Jo-Anne Dobson would split the unionist vote and allow Sinn Féin to slip through the middle and unionism would therefore lose the seat.

It is beyond belief that the Portadown Times felt it acceptable to publish that poll without informing their readers of the name of the polling company, the date(s) the poll was conducted, the methodology used (face-to-face interviews, telephone calls, internet) and all the basic best practice as identified by the British Polling Council (BPC).

What is clear, from the fact that the poll refers to “likely candidates”, is that it was old. What has also emerged is that it was not, as the Portadown Times reported, an independent poll, but one commissioned and paid for by the DUP.

Many have pointed out to me an article published on the same page as the alleged poll. It is an apology to a member of David Simpson’s family, who, to my mind, had been grossly defamed by the Portadown Times the previous week.

The Ulster Unionist Party will not let this go. We believe the newspaper has breached the Editors’ Code and more generally acted in an improper manner and we are in touch with the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

I shall defend a free press to the death (and continue to press for reform of our antiquated Libel Laws, which pre-date the invention of the Internet). But a free press must also be a fair one.

And we politicians must return to an era where mutual respect and statesmanship are values to be cherished and practised. Check out Gary Hart’s Blog on “The Death of Dignity”:


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