Mike Nesbitt, the UUP’s resurgence and sea battles

I began thinking about this blog a few weeks ago just when the UUP first left Stormont but never go round to finishing it. As time has gone on though its accuracy seems to be to be increasing especially in view of Nesbitt’s speech which Alan has covered below.

Five years ago I did a blog about the UUP and the Battle of the Nile. In brief at the Battle of the Nile Admiral Nelson divided his forces and attacked the French fleet from both sides at once achieving a stunning victory. I suggested at the time that this was in a way how Jim Molyneaux managed for many years to out manoeuvre Ian Paisley. Molyneaux claimed to have “out righted” Paisley but in reality he managed to create a political party which had members both more hardline than anyone in the DUP (eg Willie Ross) and also much more moderate (eg Ken Maginnis). He also had Orangemen like himself and Martin Smith, fundamentalists like Nelson McCausland (remember he was UUP once) as well as assorted secular, working class and even Catholic members. As such Molyneaux managed for a time to create a party which could appeal to almost all unionists. He never achieved that much with it (as John Hunter once put it “Steady as she drifts”) but did contain Paisley to a greater extent than any unionist leader before or since.

My thesis five years ago was that Reg Empey was trying the same trick but that it was almost impossible as he did not have the people to achieve it. Now Nesbitt seems to be trying to achieve the same thing again. This time, however, he seems to have a greater chance: partly due to his own talents but also due to circumstances for which he can claim less credit.

When Nesbitt became leader of the UUP it was suggested by many that they should have gone for McCallister which in view of what has happened since would have been nearly as foolish as what the same people suggested in the preceding leadership election – electing Basil McCrea over Tom Elliott. As an aside the failure of many supposed experts to admit that they got it spectacularly wrong on both those leadership elections is interesting.

When Nesbitt started as leader he outlined a relatively cautious electoral strategy. Some even suggested that he lacked any real political strategy at all. It was routinely suggested how disappointing Nesbitt was considering his years as a TV presenter: the presentation was only okay and their seemed no direction.

Mike Nesbitt is clearly, however, not merely an extremely clever man (Jesus College Cambridge) but also intensely patient.

The UUP’s reasonable showing at the last European and simultaneous council elections was encouraging but not enough for people to get excited. Certainly the council election represented a rise in UUP support mainly at the expense of the DUP but it was a modest rise: the European elections less so.

When the DUP and UUP announced an electoral pact for the 2013 Mid Ulster election (independent unionist Nigel Lutton), it was seen by many as further proof of the decline of the UUP and that eventually it would be subsumed into the DUP. That election also precipitated Basil McCrea and John McCallister leaving the party which was initially seen as a further weakening of the UUP’s position but I actually thought was strengthening the party (I will return to that later).

The further electoral pact at the general election was again presented as a daft idea. Nesbitt may well have found foregoing East Belfast difficult: he was born and bred there; in addition a moderate unionist should surely stand a candidate in a seat which is both the most unionist but also arguably one of the more moderate in Northern Ireland (having elected an Alliance candidate). Nesbitt also stood his party aside in North Belfast and there was for a time suggestion he might consider the same in South Belfast. In exchange he was given only a free run for Danny Kennedy in Newry and Armagh and Tom Elliott in Fermanagh / South Tyrone – both of which were deemed unwinnable.

Nesbitt, however, along with his strategists seems to have made much more foresighted and realistic calculations than any of his detractors. He seems to have realised that the UUP challenge in North Belfast is pretty dead for the meantime (Fred Cobain was very heavily defeated there in 2010 and 2005 as was Cecil Walker in 2001). He also understood that that was also true in East Belfast after the destruction of the UUP there by Trevor Ringland’s disastrous campaign of 2010 and his subsequent acrimonious departure form the party.

Nesbitt also understood (as did quite a number of FST unionists) that Michelle Gildernew’s grip on Fermanagh South Tyrone was weak – in part due to the previous weak unionist candidate being replaced by Fermanagh unionism’s “biggest beast” in Tom Elliott and also Gildernew’s enforced lower profile due to her ill health. Finally Nesbitt and the UUP saw that Willie McCrea was weak in South Antrim: he had never really gelled with that constituency and was getting on a bit.

So coming out of the Westminster elections Nesbitt was in a stronger position than any UUP leader had been for years. However, it was clear that in the Assembly something more had to be achieved to further strengthen the UUP position and differentiate it from the DUP’s. The idea of opposition for the UUP had been repeatedly suggested but there was repeated anxiety that out of office they would look even more irrelevant than they has been at their lowest.

In the IRA murder of Kevin McGuigan, Nesbitt has a perfect opportunity. However, it was also an opportunity fraught with dangers: looking too opportunistic was a risk but one worth taking. Some non unionists may accuse the UUP of opportunism but in reality many unionists and probably many non unionists have been pretty sickened by the return of remarkably blatant IRA activity along with the clear explanation from the security forces and politicians that an extremely blind eye had been turned to IRA criminality for years. Indeed to many unionists (and one suspects non unionists) it looks more that the DUP’s obvious keenness to get back into government is the bit which is opportunistic.

Nesbitt has the achieved what no one since Molyneaux has: he has comprehensively out manoeuvred one of the great tacticians of NI politics: Peter Robinson. I have always suggested that Robinson was tactically brilliant but strategically flawed. In the past that mattered less as Molyneaux and Empey also seemed somewhat lacking in a strategy whilst Trimble’s strategy seemed as coherent as the German claim that the Red Army were about to suffer their greatest ever defeat before the gates of Berlin in spring of 1945.

Nesbitt on the other hand seems to have something of a strategy centreing around opposition. However, more than that he is achieving something of a political envelopment of the DUP from all sides. His leaving the executive to form an opposition appeals to those hard line unionists who thought that unionists should never have been in government with Sinn Fein. Whilst he may not pick off many TUV supporters he may get transfers. Additionally those whose fundamental objection was always most strongly about the nature of the Stormont system and its lack of true democratic norms may be tempted.

In addition Nesbitt can appeal to those of a liberal bent: some of them will have been disgusted by the IRA’s flouting of their decommissioning etc. Nesbitt’s speech suggesting a softening of his line on homosexual marriage will be popular with social liberals and Danny Kinahan already supports homosexual marriage: indeed Kinahan is liberal enough that the likes of Jeff Peel on slugger somewhat bizarrely suggested he switch to being a Tory. In addition Kinahan is posh enough to call to mind unionist leaders of yesteryear. As such the kinds of socially liberal, economically right wing types who supported the UCUNF (New Farce) may be attracted. They may feel that in Nesbitt and especially Kinahan they have the sort of wannabe home counties Tory views they so often seem to aspire to.

Of course every political party is a coalition (the Tories have the Tories of the Shires who are frequently far from socially liberal – and often more economically protectionist and even left wing – but I digress). To see Nesbitt as focusing on social liberalism would, however be incomplete: Tom Elliott is the other new UUP MP and is a classic country farmer Orangeman. Meanwhile Kinahan’s replacement as South Antrim MLA Adrian Cochrane-Watson is a strict Christian and has openly socially conservative views. Nesbitt has also kept on side those with a left wing agenda such as the McGimpseys.

More than anything Nesbitt has managed to recreate a party with a large breadth of political and social views yet one which thus far has seemed remarkably united. This unity is a concept not seen since the days of Molyneaux’s pomp. In Nesbitt’s case it seems to have coincided with the resignation of both McCrea and McCallister. McCrea was certainly always known as a personally divisive figure who was difficult to get on with. The implosion of NI21 over allegations regarding which McCallister performed a solo run, despite them seeming to have been wholly unsubstantiated suggests that he too may be a rather difficult character to have in a political party.

This new united confident UUP with a leader who for the first time in a generation has outmaneuvered the DUP should suggest a rosy future for the UUP. Massive dangers do, however, lurk.

Although many may be somewhat unimpressed by the DUP’s obvious desire to get back into power almost no matter what as Ruth Patterson has already noted, time may dull that reaction: it certainly did when Paisley first went into government with Sinn Fein. In addition in government the DUP ministers will repeatedly be seen doing things, making announcements etc. In contrast opposition is hard even more so in the Stormont system without a formal opposition role: politicians just are not as visible in opposition.

Jim Allister has demonstrated that it is possible but that has been with a forensic skill at analysis bred from years as a senior QC and a phenomenal work rate. In contrast decent people as the UUP MLAs are they have in their semi opposition role to date made no more and arguably less of opposition collectively than Allister has done individually.

If the UUP want to flourish in opposition they probably need to set up shadow ministers and make a point of these people mastering their briefs. That will be difficult especially with the lack of resources available and also the lack of provision for opposition time like at Westminster. Any shadow ministers will also in the DUP face politicians often more formidable and able than they are. There are few UUP politicians who could confidently take on the likes of Arlene Foster, Simon Hamilton and Jonathan Bell either in Stormont or on television, yet for the UUP to be credible each of those ministers will need a different shadow minister.

Then when the next election does come the UUP will have to fight the advantage incumbency gives to the DUP MLAs. They will also have the problem of a woeful lack of political organisation in almost all of Belfast and in other neighbouring constituencies where over the last couple of decades the UUP party machine has atrophied massively. Finally there is the problem that the DUP will undoubtedly mercilessly play their trump card, that a vote for the UUP could mean that Sinn Fein end up being the largest party and thus Martin McGuinness would be First Minister. Even after the election it is unclear what some putatively triumphant UUP would do as D’Hondt almost certainly means that it would be them having to share power with Sinn Fein.

As such Nesbitt clearly has massive challenges ahead. That said he has met each of them thus far remarkably successfully. For the meantime, however, one suspects his hope is not to overtake the DUP nor even to deprive it of being the largest party but rather to damage the DUP significantly more and play a waiting game. A fairly close run tactical defeat which could set up a strategic victory later is likely to be his best option.

Not The Battle of the Nile then but rather Jutland: There the British admiral Jellicoe could have utterly destroyed the German fleet but at the risk of his own destruction. He opted for a small tactical defeat which was also a major strategic victory leading to the continued blockade of Germany resulting in the ruin of their war economy and unrestricted submarine warfare by them which in turn resulted in the USA joining the war.

Nesbitt as I said above being a cautious, patient man is likely to want to wait for at least one more electoral cycle before overtaking the DUP. That is no doubt a clever plan but remains very very difficult.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.