Most commentators have stated the obvious. Whistling through their teeth as they praise him for being brave in classic Yes Minister mode – .i.e. suicidal – the best that can be said for him is that he should have looked forward to cooperating with the SDLP after the election and left it at that.
But that was to miss the point. What Mike Nesbitt did was break a taboo by daring to propose voting outside the big tent. If not now, when?
Not indeed an entirely new idea but heresy in a party leader. Precedents of previous Ulster Unionist spilts are inexact but discouraging, Official and unofficial unionists in the Stormont election of 1969 followed shortly by the fall of Terence O’Neill; pledged pro White paper and anti -white paper unionists in the 1973 Assembly election which produced the first short lived power sharing executive headed by the erstwhile hardliner Brian Faulkner, followed by its traumatic fall a year later. Unlike them Mike Nesbitt is not campaigning against part of the party he nominally leads. But the Ulster Unionists still bear livid scars which gaped open again with a drip of defections and the eclipse of David Trimble. This is a party whose tail is a lot bigger than its body, a museum of fading memories for the over 60s, barely known to the under 40s.
And so even critics who like to think of themselves as free thinking took one peak outside, shuddered, and crept back in. More of them than we’d like to think were happy never to peak out in the first place.
Mike Nesbitt (and here I interpret freely) is addressing not his candidates but his voters. Is it really too much to hope for that they’ll think for themselves and vote tactically, according to the character and candidate line-up in each constituency?
The Ulster Unionist party, to put it kindly, is broad church, less kindly, hopelessly undisciplined, a mockery of the bad old party of government. Discipline is impossible without agreement on the big issues and at least a sniff at power. I make it that the almost retired John Taylor and Reg Empey are the only survivors who ever came close. After last May’s election the UUs may have been unwise to quit the Executive but that is a discussion for another day.
The party goes through leaders like check out assistants as different as salt- of- the- earth conservative farmer Tom Elliot and Cambridge-educated urban media smoothie Mike. The party is the not- the –DUP-party, its survival depending on the remarkable tenacity of the constituencies. The SDLP is a remarkable mirror image. Both parties should ask themselves why they find themselves back to back, in the same position, displaying very similar behaviours.
Yet news of the Ulster Unionists’ demise is greatly exaggerated. In even a 90 seat Assembly elected by STV there will always be room for a gently dwindling number of rivals to the big one who prefer local option to the democratic centralism of the DUP. It may not easily build a significant base among Catholics who prefer a functioning North to the nationalist dream – although these are worth going for. But what it surely needs to do is to keep searching for answering common ground with the SDLP, a mission hopefully only temporarily paused by the snap election. There is a perceptible impact to be made on DUP behaviour too.
After the loss of life through violence, the epic failure of the co-called constitutional parties to narrow the sectarian gap widened by violence was the tragedy of the Troubles. Today the potholes that suddenly opened up in the devolution trail in December need to be filled in. If by exploiting Brexit tensions and the open border issue, Sinn Fein were to succeed in including the divisive measure of a border poll in any deal to restore the Assembly yet again, the gap will remain emphatic. The duty of the centre parties will be to limit the damage. Parties may frame the debates and fight myriad little battles for the cause, but if opinion polls mean anything at all, they show that people make up their own minds on the existential questions. That ought to give the political parties ample space to cooperate.
Reminding the people and parties alike of that however shakily, is Mike Nesbitt’s message. If they want a future worth having beyond 2nd March, his party should stand by him.