Nesbitt; “Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom will be best secured by maximising the number of people who are content and happy with their lot”

Yesterday Mike Nesbitt addressed the UUP Executive for the final time as party leader. In his speech he focused on his 5 year leadership and had a few shots at the DUP. His full speech is available on the News Letter website.

He made some points about the general attitude of Unionism arguing;

Unionism needs to engage more.

There is no point complaining the White House and the USA are biased, if the only voices they hear are Irish nationalist and republican. Senator Gary Hart was the latest US Envoy and I insisted one of our first meetings should be at Boneybefore outside Larne, at the Jackson Homestead – Jackson being the first generation American President who formed the Democratic Party, which Gary has been a member of for most of his 80 years. Of the 40 million Americans claiming ancestry back to this island, the majority are not Irish American, they are Ulster Scots. We should energise them. “When Gary Hart came to my house for dinner, I introduced him – a lifelong fan of Jameson Irish Whiskey – to Black Bush, and presented him with a book of John Hewitt’s poetry. When he heard I was stepping down as Leader, he sent me a very personal message, and quoted from a Hewitt poem. It may not add up to a hill of beans, in the short term, introducing the Jamesons and Seamus Heaney man to the merits of Bushmills and John Hewitt – but unionism has nothing to lose in putting our side of the argument. We have a proud message to promote and I believe we need to work harder to promote it.

“That includes engaging with Irish Republicanism.

“I attended a conference this time last year in Bundoran, organised by an American University. The audience was Irish Republican and Irish American to the core. My debate was with Martin McGuinness. My message was simple; in sporting terms, I am playing an away match but sometimes away goals count double. I believe unionism scored a tiny victory that night.

He also had some parting shots for the DUP that could cast doubts upon Unionist unity;

“I hope the Party builds on small victories. “My vision remains of a partnership, a partnership of the willing.

“That is not what I hear from the DUP, which is unionism whose language is intent on domination.

“They talk of “rogue” and “renegade” ministers. They can talk of the “crocodile” that needs starved. All that language achieves is further division, polarisation and the energising of voters who were previously content to put their constitutional aspirations to one side as they enjoyed the benefits of being within the UK – making money, educating their children, having access to a health service without having to pay – and all the rest. What is missing from the DUP is any sense of the values and principles of 1998: reconciliation, tolerance, trust building and the demonstration of mutual respect. It is the unionism of domination, not partnership. It is – to my mind – the politics that endangers our future.

“Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom will be best secured by maximising the number of people who are content and happy with their lot, including Catholics and aspiring nationalists. When people are too busy enjoying life, the more secure the Union will be.

Partnership. Not domination.

He continued reflecting on the last election;

“Now, I could tell you our first preference vote went up 18% overall. I could talk about Alan Chambers upping our vote in North Down by well over 20%, or Robin Swann increasing his by 37% in North Antrim, or John Stewart taking a seat off Sinn Féin, just like Tom Elliott did in 2015. Or how close Michael Henderson came to reclaiming our seat in South Belfast seat – or how in a 108 seat Assembly we could have grown our MLA group – and so-on and so-forth.

“But that’s all meaningless. 16 seats in a 108 seat Assembly is the equivalent of 13.3 seats in a 90 seater. We got ten. We could not afford a single loss. Three was three too many.

“That’s not good enough. “The buck stops here.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs