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.

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  • mjh

    Mike Nesbitt has long suffered from being seriously under-rated by his political opponents and commentators. Many of these – despite the evidence of the sea-change in the UUP’s fortunes and the discipline and moral of its members – are still glossing his achievements as due to luck, and see the course he has followed as nothing more than the random path of a short-term opportunist.

    While I agree with many of your points, Turgon, in seeking to address these misconceptions I think you have over-compensated.

    You suggest that the general assessment of the first few months of Nesbitt’s leadership as lacking a clear strategy and direction is false. Instead he was patiently implementing a long-term strategy which covers at least two electoral cycles, rather like a chess Grand Master calculating all the moves of the game from the movement of the first pawn.

    I think the truth is a little more prosaic, but may suggest other qualities in Nesbitt as a party leader.

    I don’t see any evidence that Nesbitt had a strategy in mind when he won the leadership. If he appeared all over the place it is because he was. It makes no sense for him to have jettisoned McNarry and then adopt the positions he did on unionist unity candidates, Loyalist Council etc. He failed to plan for the departure of Ken Maginnis when it became obvious to everyone else that the ex-MP was going to walk. And if he was already planning long-term for Opposition it would have made more sense to give every support and assistance to McCallister’s campaign for one; which might have resulted in the resources for Opposition being now in place – and by making McCallister’s work integral to the strategy, just possibly, kept him from following McCrea.

    Where Nesbitt redeemed his leadership was in having the lack of arrogance and also the self-awareness to recognise his mistakes and the ability to learn from them. I doubt he corrected his weaknesses all on his own. More likely he wisely chose the right people to give him advice – and equally importantly – was willing to listen to them. This in itself is a key leadership skill.

    The strategy he then adopted was dictated by the immediate need to avoid losing more ground to the DUP in the Euro and Council elections. He had to halt the UUP’s slide towards oblivion and correctly recognised that there was only one way to do that. He had to keep so close to the DUP on all core unionist/loyalist issues that there would be no room for Robinson to wield the blade so often used on previous UUP leaders. The unionist unity candidate policy flowed directly from this, and his need to avoid the DUP running a second Euro candidate.

    Selecting that strategy did not require the mind of a Cambridge graduate. The impressive part was sticking firmly to it in a party as poorly disciplined and jittery as the UUP.

    The departure of McCrea was well handled – and clearly planned for. Tying him up in a disciplinary proceeding was a brilliant piece of Machiavellian politics.

    For all the calculations which you point to, he still took a gamble when he agreed to the precise terms of the Westminster unity candidate deal. The FST win was far from inevitable. The contested South Antrim one even less so. (If he had failed he would have been back near square one.) That was probably his real Jellicoe moment and he decided to risk all. So he has political imagination and courage.

    As for all that followed; two years standing shoulder to shoulder with the DUP has opened up the room with the unionist electorate for him to make strategic choices – or to take tactical opportunities when they present themselves.

    His conference speech was a further exercise in extending his space for manoeuvre.

    But I definitely part company with you on your suggestion that he is patiently resisting the urge to overtake the DUP in 2016, playing instead for a close run tactical defeat in order to set up a later strategic victory.

    Firstly, overtaking the DUP next year does not seem within his grasp. The scale of the party’s recent successes are a long, long way from that. It would require an electoral movement the like of which is rarely seen in a generation to bring that about, and you have comprehensively set out why that is most unlikely.

    Secondly a political leader normally only gets one chance to win – and they will always take it.

    Rather I believe that the Nesbitt strategy is now to maximise the space within which he can take opportunities to damage the DUP, knowing that in politics it is rarely an opposition which wins elections but a governing party which loses them.

    In all I believe he is a far more effective leader than Molyneaux. And consequently much more dangerous to his political opponents.

  • OneNI

    An interesting and well written article but suffers from the flaw of thinking it really matters whether UUP outpolls DUP. It’s of passing interest to some but has no bearing on big P politics.
    As long as Unionism accepts the insular boundaries of 6 county unionism the more they will remain as bit players in a dysfunctional political system – ironically too they actually undermine the Union.
    Like their mirror image in nationalism they seek to moviate the larger proportion of their ever decreasing tribal vote. This suits the enemies of the Union – in Dublin, London and further afield.
    No coherent vision of an all encompassing politics of the Union based on left and right merely being the big tribal chief in Norn Iron
    Meanwhile the Storomont system delivers poor government and NI’s health service, energy and wider infrastructure and economy continue to fall further behind the rest of the UK and the world
    Decline and disillisionment are the order of the day – but hey imagine if Mike outpolls Robbo that will make people sit up and take notice – Not

  • This infers a great deal of intelligence into events when subjected to the benefit of hindsight and a piecing together of a series of circumstances (as elections come) that are more happenstance than strategically planned.

    The DUP is tired. Recent elections showed that there are danger points, more from the smaller TUV and UKIP (who between them polled a near European quota, and picked up near quotas in safe DUP areas), than the DUP.

    The resignation from the EXEC was always going to be necessary tactic for the UUP to be distinguished in next year’s Assembly elections, but the reason for resignation and the verbal contortions on what happens after the next elections seem to suggest there is no overarching plan.

    With almost three times the number of seats, the DUP would have to perform catastrophically, and that would have to be entirely to the benefit of the UUP for any significant change in the balance. At this point that is likely to have more to do with: a) the outcome of the current talks and ‘the agreement’ b) how long with Robinson stay in the FM seat c) the Southern election which at present will be before the next election and will identify where the SF project is at. None of which has anything to do with Nesbitt and everything to do with events.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    A good analysis and I wonder how much of the TUV’s thunder will be eroded over time if this does play out as you say. There are other obstacles to overcome such as Nesbitt’s surprisingly anodyne televisual performances: he speaks in over rehearsed tropes that allow him to appear blindsided by many interviewers, his recent and unrewarded support for fleggers and Twaddlers which only looked like a rejection averse child saying “I want to play too” and an overall sense that he lacks any real conviction resulting in his party seeming purposeless & identityless. If he seizes on the capital that has fallen into his hands then he should sensibly transform himself from the man of telegenic gloss and reactivity to a confident figure of substance.
    Let’s not overlook the fact that his removal from the executive was undoubtedly directionless at the outset. It is now that the paramilitary monitoring report has been published that Nesbitt can claim vindication. But he couldn’t have seen that coming so seizing that seems opportunisti itself.
    Let’s hope that the days of the rather pathetic Combined Unionist Leadership and Graduated Response are put behind them (and us) and instead we might see some sorely needed dignity and maturity in the Unionist end of the spectrum and a standard of political conduct that can be respected.

  • Gopher

    In politics things change very quickly and the tipping point or “Culmination point” in military parlance is often hard to discern and is caprious. Nope if this was a Battle it would be Waterloo, one of the main reasons why it was such a decisive defeat for Napoleon was he actually believed he was winning right up to the moment he was irrevocably defeated. The fall of La Haye Saint fed this delusion just like South Antrim seems to be feeding the UUP.
    Declaring victory while the enemy is still on the field is never sound strategy and it is a fault that draws the hubris of genius like a magnet. Napoleon, Rommel, Hannibal all victims. Believe me Nesbitt is no Rommel, Hannibal or Napoleon.
    Lets just look at the famous 2015 UUP general election victory. The DUP increased its vote by 16,000 the UUP by 12,000. In South Belfast where there was a choice, unionists voted DUP. In East Belfast were there was not they voted Naomi. In North Down they did not even get a chance to vote UUP. Hardly strategic genius in operation. In the rest of the country apart from Joanne Dobsons heroic campaigning there is not much to shout about. Danny Kennedy underperformed in Newry and Armagh. Lagan Valley, East Antrim and East Londonderry the UUP votes went down. In Strangford the UUP vote was decimated. No Cannae’s there!
    It is safe to say without the fall of La Haye Saint, sorry South Antrim the UUP campaign was in serious trouble without the pact. (apart as mentioned Joanne Dobson). I will contest popular opinion and state that South Antrim was a great result for the DUP as it got rid of an embarrasment for them, one that would atrophied there forever.
    I welcome and applaud Mikes decision to go into opposition though it should have been much earlier. But to declare victory? If Peter walks out of those talks with welfare reform and the very public and now verifiable end of the army council or brings it down if he does not get both its “Now Maitland Nows your time” and the “La Guard recule” Mike will have met his Waterloo.

  • Greenflag 2

    King Canute could’nt rule the waves nor reverse their direction . Mr Nesbitt like Moses is in a bit of a quandary . Should he part the waves more than a little he elects an SF First Minister -should he part them a little he’ll be seen as another loser -should he part them entirely then Ireland may lose it’s island status .

  • tmitch57

    Turgon, I believe that the naval term you were unsuccessfully searching for to describe the strategy you propose for Nesbitt and the UUP is “fleet in being,” invented by British naval historian Julian Corbin. It means to shadow one’s opponent or remain in port and not engage, unless a tactically-advantageous situation presents itself, while forcing the more powerful opponent to tie up much of his strength protecting against the possible threat. It was the strategy employed by the Argentine navy at the start of the Falklands War until the sinking of the Belgrano exposed its weakness. But in order to be successful it requires a minimum level of strength that the UUP does not appear to possess at the moment. The UUP is not at present like the PLAN of China vis a vis the U.S. Navy or the Reichsmarine vis a vis the Royal Navy. It is more like the Italian navy or the Argentine navy vis a vis the Royal Navy.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “They will also have the problem of a woeful lack of political organisation in almost all of Belfast” This is not only a problem for the UUP but also other political parties especially in Inner City Belfast. I once remember standing watching voting patterns coming out of ballot boxes from this part of the city and a rather concerned senior unionist stating that he felt an Ulster Unionist Labour Association should be reignited again ! They never did and a lot of working class unionists still remain in them parts of Belfast today. I believe this is a weakness the UUP have within this constituency of unionism.

  • Gopher

    I thought Tirpitz was the inventor with the “riskflotte” strategy. Tom Elliot like Tirpitz’s namesake that lay tied up in a fjord is a hostage and can be sunk anytime the DUP want.

  • OneNI

    Nesbitt’s confusion over gay marriage is very telling. He wants to be seen as a liberal but doesnt want to lose traditionalists. Same in other areas. Not leadership – path of least resistence and populism

  • tmitch57

    Tirpitz might have invented the practice, but Corbin (?) was the who elevated it to an abstract concept under the name “fleet in being.”

  • 23×7

    His confusion shows him to be spineless and his UUP to be no different from the rest of our atrophied political parties.

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    I think Mike Nesbitt’s comments regarding the Irish language mark a sea change in unionist attitudes and reflect the work done by the likes of LInda Ervine and others including the Cultúrlann where I work. I hope it’s a sign of better things to come. Tús maith leath na h-oibre. A good start is half the work.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    What did he say?

  • Concubhar O Liathain

    To get there, we need to be accommodating. We need to identify the cold spots in society and warm them up. For example, we need to address the fact that some people who cherish the Irish Language feel we do not respect them and their love of the language.

    It’s all very well saying Sinn Féin politicised it – and they did, and they still are in places – but where does that get us? What’s the next step for us? Many unionists see it as their heritage too, so wouldn’t it be better to support them? Or at least make sure our words and deeds do not convey the wrong message to those who do cherish the Irish Language.

  • Gopher

    Julian Corbett. appears to be his correct name. His treatise on Naval strategy written in 1911 is available online for free. I had never came across him before thank you

  • tmitch57

    Thanks, I couldn’t remember if it was Corbin or Corbett.

  • Gopher

    To keep with the nautical theme of the thread, Admiral Nesbitt seems to have some signalling difficulty. Yesterday gay marriage was the future and that signal was run up the halyards. Today in a u turn reminicent of Scheers 180 degree “battle about turn to starboard” at Jutland he puts himself on the “wrong side of history”. Perhaps his PR is an ancestor of Carkett or Sir George Tyron. Hardly the “Nelson Touch” from Captain Mike. “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody party leaders today Chatfield”.

  • Greenflag 2

    Sounds oddly like long overdue common sense . Lets hope the Gaeilgori reciprocate. And let hope SF depoliticise the Irish language .

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “And lets hope SF depoliticise the Irish language” ? Good Luck on that Score !
    A council decision to name a new housing development earmarked for Coalisland solely in Irish (Eanach Mor) has been critised for sending out a “clear message that unionists are not welcome” Members of the Mid Ulster District Council’s Environment Committee voted to pass a name in Irish for the new development on the Washingbay Road.
    One of the principles of the Irish language policy which councillors ratified was that Council “will maintain an English and Irish street signage programme”

  • Gopher

    Never going to happen, SF look at the Irish Language as the Germans looked at the U-Boat and that is the albatross round the neck. iIrish being one of Gerry’s Trojan horses or “Hillfskruezers” to keep with the spirit of Turgons thread. A unionist deal with SF being the dominant nationalist party would have the sincerity of the London Naval Agreement. SF seem determined to remain in the “Jeune École” and therefore Irish will languish there, a weapon to be used against Blue Water parties.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’ve never understood the apparent opposition to the Irish language from some unionists. Pick your battles and all that. And it’s not even something they should be fighting at all. Tolerance and freedom of expression for all, it’s a no brainer. If we expect respect for our British culture we need to show respect for Irish culture.
    It is so sad the Irish language has become associated with ultra-nationalism, I do support the work of the many who are trying to de-politicise it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Turgon, very interesting insights and well argued – thanks