Something quite profound has shifted here, and more so within unionism than nationalism…

So where does this all leave Unionism? Well, plainly not everyone is in the same place Gregory Campbell was last night. The brutal truth of all of this is that the DUP did not want to leave office over this, or almost anything else.

In the blame game it is always unionism’s fault, so staying in situ was always Peter Robinson’s plan of action.

Then along came Mike Nesbitt, who, no doubt having sMike Nesbitteen the term “Head of IRA Intelligence” in CS Geddes’ first report (possibly switching on the “Bobby Storey” light bulb), and decided (opportunistically, but effectively) to “form an Opposition and offer people an alternative”.

Interestingly on Nolan last night Gregory Campbell who was fairly composed throughout was tested on the Storey moment and was at pains to say that Storey’s arrest was the trigger for their failed attempt to exclude Sinn Fein.

In truth though Nesbitt had beaten them to the draw on that one. Storey’s alleged presence in a private investigation into Jock Davison would never have sat well for unionists with Sinn Fein’s ongoing membership of the Policing Board.

At that point a clear ‘we’re staying in’ or ‘we’re staying out’ would at least have given the party a consistent position. The in/out fudge was anything but clear and perhaps made going back in the only thing he could reasonably do.

So Nesbitt has scrummed a clear advantage out of this. Moreover time is now on his side rather than Robinson’s. He’s well clear of what is now a rather damaged ship, and he does not need to be in any hurry to prematurely sink it.

When I laid out a rough verbal of this reasoning on this morning’s #SluggerReport (below) someone asked if I really thought that Nesbitt what a strategically smart enough? My  response: no one has to be very smart in this game, you just have to be less stupid than everyone else.

It’s a critical point in fact.

There are no strategic geniuses in Stormont. Everyone left on board the ship has a problem to a greater or lesser degree. Nesbitt has grabbed the first big oppositional seat in Stormont and that grants him some power to criticise.

If he is, as one viewer this suggested, “making the whole thing up as he goes along”, he’s hardly alone in that. Everyone else is doing that too, it’s just he has a far better story than they do now.

He should probably mine that ruthlessly, but not greedily.

When the next election comes round if he can stay broadly in the middle, he’ll shift some constituencies up from a single quota to a few halfs, and then possibly draw in enough transfers from the TUV, PUP and UKIP to get second MLAs across the line.

The critical thing is to remember to keep his narrative broad. He will have continue to presume no change within nationalism which means that he needs to prepare his troops for dealing with a post IRA run SF, and (possibly) as a dFM.

Clarity will be the thing. Making Northern Ireland work is the higher prize for a unionist leader and that means delivering the effective end of state indulgence in paramilitarism right across the board.

No one else is going to make that easy for him. “Battle a day” has been tested to destruction. Time to test the waters and allow some new narratives to emerge?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Ernekid

    Unionism in a nutshell

    ‘We’ll dig our way out!’

  • Zig70

    It reads as a plea for the UUP to fill the role as moderate unionist. They currently don’t, and they need nationalists support for opposition to have any weight. The rejection of the sdlp was as much a rejection of the UUP as partners as anything else. To me Alliance fills the role of moderate unionist a lot better.

  • mickfealty

    Really? You mean the bit at the end? It’s a variation on the Long Peace document published by Slugger in May 2003… It’s also based on the view that narrative matters in that it helps dictate what you can and cannot do further down the road.

    No moderate party should be so moderate that they legislate their way out of existence.

  • Greenflag 2

    Are they looking for Donegal 😉 ? At the end of the rainbow there’s no pot of gold .

  • Yes. But Mike’s ‘narrative’ is ‘we’re opposed’ but only this side of an election, and then we’ll see. That is a hard call. Although the UUP may gain a seat or two, to recover the few they’ve lost since the last election, this will depend on the promised clear lines of a manifesto heading into the next election. The lauded electoral gains aren’t so great as the UUP hubris suggests, as outlined on

    Opposition, but depends on the number of seat and PfG and…. is hardly the principle based on IRA in Govt which is the reason Nesbitt withdrew UUP from Govt. Based on this week’s report, what does he expect to be different post-May 2016?

  • mjh

    The DUP were always going back. There was no way Peter Robinson intended to end a half-century career dancing a merry jig to Mike Nesbitt’s tune. And whatever anyone else in the DUP thought of Sinn Fein, none of them fancied that particular piece of music either.

    It’s a bit unfair to damn Mike Nesbitt with the faint praise that ” you just have to be less stupid than everyone else.” Some of the most effective strategies are the most simple – and in retrospect everyone says they were obvious. It’s not thinking up a strategy that’s the hard part in politics – it’s getting a party united behind that strategy and then sticking with it consistently which is the difficult part. Even more so if your party is the UUP.

    So Nesbitt, having led the party with a consistent strategy ever since the first few botched months of his leadership, has reaped rewards in elections this year and last. But it’s a leap too far to start talking up the prospects of the UUP doubling their representation in many Stormont constituencies. This only looks a plausible prospect in South Antrim and Fermanagh South Tyrone.

    A realistic objective for the party would be to target 18 seats versus the 16 they won last time (and the 13 they currently hold). But they would be doing very well to actually win 17 and may have to settle for 16. And just think back to the party’s position three years ago to realise what an achievement that would be.

    What Nesbitt is doing successfully is creating the space his party would need in order to take advantage of future opportunities as they arise. How well they react to those opportunities could be the real test of his leadership.

  • Looking at this as dispassionately as I can in this place, I’m left with the view that politics in this place is screwed (if it wasn’t already) for another generation unless we can find new political parties. An unlikely prospect.
    Not only are the people lied to by the authorities (that the IRA had decommissioned & had gone away), we are lied to by our own elected representatives on all sides. Both the DUP & SF were pedaling the line that the IRA had gone away & if they hadn’t they certainly did not control SF & had disarmed.
    Our political system is therefore built lie upon lie & I can’t see that that is going to change for many years to come.
    What we have is not politics, it’s a convention of liars. It’s like a bizarre scene out of Alice in Wonderland or more recently Monty Python.

  • aquifer

    “no one has to be very smart in this game, you just have to be less stupid than everyone else.” Yup.

    ‘Intra-ethnic outbidding’ is an unstupid tactic when it worked so well for the DUP, so Nesbitt could stick with it and not lose from it in relative terms, though Unionisms broader ongoing recruitment failure could tell sooner rather than later. e.g. If Alliance stole the UUP’s ‘Oul decency’ dark suit and promised law and order. But Nesbitt can wait for the electorate to teach him that lesson. In the meantime there is Peter Robinson to fry.

  • Gaygael

    So on UUP electoral prospects.

    None of their current 13 are I have UUP gains as those where they gained the MPs to start. South Antrim and FST are the first two.
    I feel recoup of South down, east Derry (although interesting that Sugden is staying independent) and Lagan valley.

    So that’s up five to 18. Where else are possible gains? I’m not sure there rally are any.

    But, Mike seem to be on a roll. Just watched the pre conference broadcast. A liberal, softer forward looking broadcast. Calls out executive for failing on equality strategies, and corporate failure. No ira or Lundy crap. His pulling out of exec has sown that up. And no flegs until the very end. Interesting.

    What big notes will he hit this weekend. I wonder.

  • Greenflag 2

    I know this sounds uncomfortable but it could be worse and was a lot worse . People forget or choose not to remember -all perfectly understandable . The farce of today is still preferable to the violent idiocy of the not so distant past .

    There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to political man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between green and orange , between science and superstition, between truth and mythology and it lies between the pit of Unionist fears and the summit of Unionist hopes. This is the dimension of mandatory coalition and limited powers and never ending crises . It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone or sometimes Northern Ireland .

    My apologies if you are unfamilar with Rod Serling he of the Twilight Zone a sometimes fantastical sci fi TV series from the time of the dinosaurs 😉

  • Kevin Breslin

    The UUP can attack the DUP all they want, apathy, boredom and frustration is increasing.

  • mjh

    Agree with those five possibles. Two others to watch:

    Strangford: They scored the same share of the local council vote in 2014 as they did in 2011, when they won two seats. This suggests that they have a prospect of retaking the second seat from McNarry. But their Westminster vote collapsed. If McNarry does fall then the TUV if they stand- and even the Conservatives based on last year’s vote – might be the beneficiary. Although I still favour McNarry to hold.

    Belfast North: Here too in 2014 they held the local council share they won in 2011. On the 2011 Assembly vote they only need a swing of 0.66% from the DUP to take a seat.

    On the other hand their Belfast East seat could just be vulnerable.

  • hotdogx

    So what’s going to happen now, will this split the unionist vote in the next election, imagine if SF are the biggest part next time, this maybe a sign that unionisms battle is being lost. How will this effect unionist voter apathy? Will this motivate nationalists to come out to vote? Unionists have alwayas been divided on the assembly, much more than nationalists.

  • mjh

    Even if the UUP gained all 7 identified possibilities and lost nothing – taking their total to 20, they would only take 3 of those from the DUP. So the DUP would drop from 38 to 35, well ahead of SF’s current 29. Based on the last few elections where the SF share has been dipping, they will be hard pressed to improve on that number in 2016- indeed there is risk of a decline.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Mikey Boy is on a Winner ! He does not have to do nothing but role on the momentum into elections. The Media does the rest “DUP shares Power with PIRA Army Council” ! Danny Morrison just on the Nolan show praising the DUP ! If the DUP think they are only going to get a minor nose bleed from the Unionist Electorate they are kidding themselves ? This will be a Busted Nose Job ! I have seen the DUP pull White Rabbits out of Hats before and I am sure the Dirty Tricks Department will be in overdrive before elections but I honestly cannot see them turning this around with the Unionist Electorate !

  • Nevin

    Meanwhile up on the hill:

    Mr Nesbitt said he had asked the meeting yesterday: “Have I been sitting here in negotiations with members of the IRA Army Council?” and Secretary of State Theresa Villiers told him the question was “not appropriate”.

    Then the UUP leader said talks co-chair, Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan, remarked that his army council question was “less than positive”.

    Afterwards, Mr Nesbitt commented: “There was not a meaningful discussion about the fact that the report says that the IRA exists. Nobody wanted to address that, particularly not the Irish government.

  • Emanonon

    It is getting very crowded on the more extreme side of unionism, TUV, UKIP, DUP, & UUP all share a narrow space.

    As noted by MJH and given the shambles that currently exists It is possible that NI Conservative’s Johnny Andrews in Strangford could be a contender – unionist – no sectarian or paramilitary baggage – centre right. He already has a base and might well appeal to the softer centrist unionist vote ( and maybe Catholic unionists) now that the UUP has moved off the centre ground. Although not so likely, but possible, Frank Shivers in North Down could make further inroads for the same reasons.

    Interesting times ahead if some unionist voters realign towards the centre.

    On the nationalist side could also be a difficult election for SF if SDLP manage to get a clear message, but it is a long time since that happened.

  • Sharpie

    These are good, productive, creative necessities. I wish more people would get motivated to be apathetic and bored with the current system then we can get on with making the new one.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well unless people actually work on something; apathy, boredom and frustration achieves nothing and achieving nothing maintains the status quo.

  • Sharpie

    I’d see it as an important advance, a growing up. If there are people married to strong views then nothing can take seed – they cannot change. With an acceptance that “what we thought we knew” is shown to be wrong, then there is potential to find alternatives. I’d say we are all at different stages in a change process here and some are further ahead, and some are way way behind but the general momentum is towards something new. (jeepers I’m such an idealist).

  • Kevin Breslin

    Nope attacking politicians for doing nothing, by doing nothing is bare faced hypocrisy. It’s not an alternative, it’s vindication if anything. “We wanted change, but we were unwilling to make any until society changed and politics change with it” matra, is completely ignoring the role a person’s will has in a society.

  • Sharpie

    I think you are missing the point I am making. The Arab Spring was based on the notion that the best and fastest way to deflate a power structure is to remove your support for it. This is a passive act that renders anyones ability to move against a population quite devoid of meaning. It is only one of the possibilities a general population can practice. Another is violent revolution, or soft peaceful transition (sniggers here).

    If you are a committed republic or loyalist, how in earth am I going to out-fanaticise you in a way that gets you to shift to moderate space? It just won’t happen. Force of argument won’t win the day, never has and never will, no matter the pure logic within.

    Getting extremism to be tempered opens the space for moderate exploration of possibility. Everything before that is just shouting – even your language is about “attacking politicians”.

    Try not giving a damn for a day – its so liberating. I try it and then come back to agonising but at least I know what apathy feels like.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Arab Spring failed, if that’s an advert for a political movement without politicians or political leadership at the helm then it’s not a good one. Eventually you have to face the consequences of that passivity (not necessarily pacifism) being required to deliver change as the Arab World has.

    If the Arab Spring achieved any passion for reform, it would not be because people were sitting on their backsides being apathetic, bored and frustrated all at the same time and things kicked off spontaneously from all the inertia and stress.

  • Sharpie

    You are wrong.

  • Kevin Breslin

    People worked to create the Arab Spring, they were hardly apathetic.

    I think you are wrong to accuse the Arab Spring of being successful nihilism at work, when it was neither nihilistic nor successful.

    Even anarchy isn’t nihilistic, it can be a fuss over nothingness at worse, but it’s still a fuss people care about.

  • Sharpie

    I didn’t say any of that and you are still wrong.

  • Greenflag 2

    ‘when it was neither nihilistic nor successful.’

    These things take time . Minus its imported western technology the Arab countries are several centuries behind the west in ” democratic ” values or in religious tolerance for non Islamics . Some of course are more intolerant than others .

    I’d add ‘not successful ” yet . These things take time . And there are no guarantees of success long term or short term . At one point in history the western world had come to a grinding halt in mathematical computation . Try multiplication or division using Roman Numerals . The Arabians supplied the answer with their numerics without which western science could not have developed .

    Progress is not guaranteed and living standards don’t always rise . They remained stagnant in Britain for a 1,300 years after the Romans gapped it .

  • Greenflag 2

    Apols for butting in here but both of you are right .Apathy is understandable particularly in a conflict divided society where people on all sides have been playing ostrich for decades . But its not a solution . The solution has to come from a serious commitment to real reform /change be it economic , political or whatever is the issue which has been unresolvable for whatever reason . And it never stops .

    If no solution emerges from within then as night follows day a solution is imposed from without . From within is to be preferred but sometimes that’s politically impossible for reasons of history – culture – religion -economics etc .

    What people in NI have to consider eventually and I mean both the Orange and the Green is if they would’nt all be better off with an imposed solution at this stage ?

  • Zig70

    Really I’d like to see a left leaning party like the SDLP bridge the divide on its own without the need for any tribal marriages. Though, if the UUP was full of folk like Trevor then I’d have fewer issues, but it isn’t. It looks to nationalists that it is led by the OO. Interestingly the comments from 2003 were about the connection between the OO and the UUP and the hope for a separation. I’ve given up any hope.

  • MalcolmRedfellow

    It took a severe poke from a fellow former Slugger to bring me back on board. My, my … but the log-in procedure gets tougher every year.

    A simple thought, then:

    What strikes me is the simple, old problem: all the political action is about bragging rights within the closed community. Nobody, no politico has the vision to look over that parapet to establish a wider presence.

    As the all-seeing Fealty has it:

    There are no strategic geniuses in Stormont. Everyone left on board the ship has a problem to a greater or lesser degree. Nesbitt has grabbed the first big oppositional seat in Stormont and that grants him some power to criticise.

    If he is, as one viewer this suggested, “making the whole thing up as he goes along”, he’s hardly alone in that. Everyone else is doing that too, it’s just he has a far better story than they do now.

    He should probably mine that ruthlessly, but not greedily.

    [Adopts voice of ageing juvenile, Pinkie Huckaback] How true. How very true. And … yet … how disappointingly wrong.

    Quite liked Amanda Ferguson’s piece in the Irish Times, by the way.

  • Greenflag 2

    Mr Nesbitt told UUP delegates –

    ” it was the best of times and the worst of times.”

    “The best of times for the Ulster Unionist Party – unfortunately, it’s the worst of times for the devolution we fought so hard for,” he said.

    It’s either early Alzheimers or party political amnesia . I recall the UUP working so hard for devolution that they kept Stormont in a state of suspended ‘death : for 25 years (1974-1998).

    Perhaps the UUP have moved on from those no talks about talks or no talks about anything that might look like talks days . On the other hand and there’s always an other hand the record of Opposition loyal or otherwise in the history of Stormont is not encouraging for any party aspiring to the opposition benches . The now long gone Irish Nationalist Party , the NILP , (yes they formerly existed ) and the SDLP (1972 -1974) could all tell a tale of how opposition worked in the old Stormont .

    I remain to be convinced by the UUP the party that abolished proportional representation n Northern Ireland in 1929 and then went on to misrule the province for the next 45 years until they became such an embarrassment that HMG had to the decent thing and abolish Stormont for a generation until the politicians could be ‘forced ‘ to compromise . .

    Nonetheless Mr Nesbitt is right at least on one point . SF can’t have it both ways – It’s not 1969 – nor 1998 – it’s 2015. Even SF voters may not come out in the numbers needed if SF continue to give the impression of being a 98% constitutional party . SF need to be 100% constitutional in both jurisdictions just like FF had to be in 1926 , The vast majority of Irish and British voters on this island will not elect a government that isn’t . Yes SF are in government in NI because of mandatory coalition and the GFA . Voluntary coalition with others both within NI and in the Republic will be an uphill climb for SF even with 100% constitutionality – but not an impossible task by no means .

  • mickfealty

    I think we underestimate the amount of evolution from old war parties to new ambitious peaceful ones. When we did the research for A Long Peace, I remember asking a bunch of middle class kids in the pol soc at Sullivan if any of them had ever considered joining the SDLP.

    One hand went up, but she said she gave up on it when she considered that everyone else would know each other from school and church. You cannot build a united project on principles if you don’t first find ways to draw in the DNA of the other side into your project.

    Two hopeful things from Mike’s speech is his talk of championing Irish (something IJP has been doing for years quietly for the Alliance Party), and talking about getting gay marriage onto a more mainstream footing in the party. Listening to where people are and reflecting their current (rather than their past) concerns is critical to political renewal.

    That’s very hard to do when you have a status quo to support…

  • Zig70

    Hmm, Mike’s speech fits into your narrative nicely, did you have words? The championing Irish thing would warm your heart if you had no memory. I’d put money it goes no further than a sound bite.

  • Gingray

    I have noticed recently, you appear to have shifted you allegiance from Alliance to the UUP, with a similar change to the volume of articles on Slugger in relation to each. Interesting.

    Not sure what Nesbitt has achieved is that profound – I would be quite willing to put money on voter turnout being down next election, rather than up, which speaks more of apathy than anything profound.

    Or perhaps I am over estimating the intelligence of our voters here – perhaps they do believe that our politicians, locally, did not know about the IRA not being gone. The Irish and British governments seem to have been aware of it, and there has been enough in the press and from the IMC to suggest they have still been around in some capacity. Which suggests a degree of stupidity on the part of all the Unionist parties who bragged about defeating the IRA only to have it transpire, they haven’t gone away.

    Nesbitt has done a good job, and I do think he will ultimately return the UUP to the top dog status, but it really should not be that hard to topple the DUP. Majority of members and MLAs come from a small extreme religous grouping of 11k people, they have views largely out of sync with voters, and there is the continual wiff of dodgy financial dealings in the background. Ripe for the taking.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If the UUP still does pacts with the DUP, it will still muddy the real choice between these parties and abandon real issues for divide and conquer politics.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Rubbish, modern Arabs have made great contributions to mathematics and science in modern day. There are Egyptian Nobel Prize winners like Ahmed Zewail. To blame Arab culture for why the Arab Spring didn’t kick off is bordering on racism. Arab civilisations for all their faults have shown they are capabile of change. Look at Their history, it is hardly a conservative one

    The Arab Spring was a failure (apart from Tunisia where there was political leadership) because the militant backlash suppressed it. Western countries including the UK on Bloody Sunday, and the USA in Ferguson are not above imposing order in similar manners, look at some European countries reaction to migrants, look at Ukraine’s political transition as a good example of a “western failure”.

    It takes work, not time and apathy to change things. Expecting change to happen ex nihlo will simply be waiting for all the natural changes that no human being could control anyway, in which case it is simply deferring to the authority of nature. Social change requires human work and that human work is effectively “politics”, for want of a better word.

  • peepoday

    There is little to divide these two parties.Both seek to share power with IRA/sinn feinn.Unionist voters can see their hypocrisy.There is a deep crisis amongst the unionist community and a sense that both unionist parties are out of touch.Voter apathy will only increase as there is no real alternative.