Five questions over the future of Unionism after Mike Nesbitt steps down

History is unlikely to be very kind to Mike Nesbitt’s tenure as Ulster Unionist leader. The 2017 Assembly election looked to many observers like the UUP’s long-awaited big chance. It was not to be.

To be fair, the UUP was struggling long before Nesbitt took over at the top. It can also be said that he tried pretty much everything.
He led them firstly as an Executive party and then into Opposition.

When he first entered politics, it was at the height of the UCU-NF coalition with the Tories – he was one of David Cameron’s candidates in the 2010 General Election.

In more recent years, there were electoral pacts with the DUP – in the 2013 Mid Ulster by-election and the 2015 General Election.

And then there was the ill-fated “Vote Mike, Get Colum” dalliance with the SDLP, culminating in him dismaying many party colleagues by saying he would give his second preference to Eastwood’s party.

Mike Nesbitt also pretty much threw the kitchen sink at the DUP on RHI and SIF/Charter NI, personally leading the charge and seemingly on the Nolan Show on an almost daily basis.

Some liberal keyboard warriors on Twitter seem to see Nesbitt as a fallen liberal hero, who dared to think outside traditional lines and was cruelly crushed. Others might think things were a bit more complicated than that.

For a start, Nesbitt’s big pitch for the UUP-SDLP replacing the DUP-SF executive had a central flaw. Even if the DUP had been wiped out, Sinn Fein would still be very much there, entitled to Executive places and a central role in government.

The Nesbitt failure also raises some interesting questions about the nature of unionism and wider politics here.

Here are a mere five for starters:

  1. Is unionism much more of a single issue pressure group than a fully-fledged political ideology? There are no in-built de facto unionist positions on anything much, outside of support for the union and traditional unionist demands. Unionists can be for or against austerity, state-funded health care, student fees, tax cuts, etc etc. This model of unionism as a single issue alliance would help explain why the very idea of unionist voters aiding nationalist candidates proved so controversial.
  2. Is some movement towards unionist unity, or at least greater DUP-UUP co-operation, now inevitable? Arguments that the union is safe or that Assembly elections have nothing to do with the border might well have less purchase, given the current Brexit-related flux and the fall-out from the March 2 poll. It’s worth recording also that long time UUP grandee David Campbell has said “both parties have virtually identical policies”.
  3. Does unionist unity inevitably mean a circling of the wagons behind ultra-defensive politics, in a way that aggravates and puts off nationalists and other non-unionists? Put another way, what implications does it have for the core challenge of building functioning power-sharing at Stormont?
  4. Do the dynamics of our enclosed power-sharing set-up push politics towards two big blocs on either side, trying to work together while also managing the demands, aspirations and fears of their communities?Electoral pact politics are not necessarily confined to the unionist side. It was only two years ago that Sinn Fein proposed a pact with the SDLP.
  5. Is the development of cross-community politics and political forces always going to be severely constrained by the two big blocs model and a system of government based upon it?

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  • the rich get richer

    This kind of thing doesn’t doesn’t paint Unionism in a good light………..Will Unionism ever see the light…………

  • I disagree. History is unlikely to assess Mike Nesbitt in the same way we would today. There’ll be time for further events and further reflection.

    I’d suggest that in the future history will see Nesbitt as an unexpected leader of a party in decline who failed to turn it around but did provide an alternative vision and when the party did not listen he chose to step swiftly off the stage rather than prolonging his decline in popularity. Yet he didn’t give up as quickly as Tom Elliott.

    Historians may even argue that he held a pragmatic brand of liberal unionism that meant he veered back towards pacts to avoid being blamed for avoidable defeats. He’ll be remembered as first party leader to embrace the upcoming official opposition – having argued against a totally unsupported opposition in his leadership bid.

    At UUP conferences and events he embraced unionist culture rather than continuing an emphasis on the Orange Order. He tackled legacy issues through championing mental health of victims and survivors rather than engaging in sham fights over definitions or immunity.

    And the DUP’s protests at UUP transfers getting SDLP candidates elected in the March 2017 Assembly election – while masking the reality that the DUP not being transfer friendly was as significant as voters being willing to give the SDLP a transfer – may mean he’s remembered for having a message that was in tune with more of the electorate than his own candidates.

    From James Molyneaux onwards, UUP leaders will be marked by history against the height of their ambition and their efforts to implement their vision. While the latter won’t score too well, the former may get a higher grade than his successor …

  • chrisjones2

    5 answers

    1 It should be more than a pressure group but almost all the parties in NI have similar policies except possibly Alliance. Generally they are all statist and welfare dominated rather than entrepreneurial becasue thats where the votes are.

    2 Yes…I expect it befoire Christmas or indeed before the next election in around 5 weeks time. The UUP is a hollowed out husk

    3 No. It depends on the Leadership – wiothout the necessity to fight fellow unionist parties there might be more room for manoeuvre but does the Leader want that? Apart from ‘bein agin themuns’ what does she think? You were her spin doctor – have you any idea?

    4 Probably yes and the closer the numbers get the greater the pressure. I think though that bigger quotas will force MLAS to be wider in their stances – if you need 5000 to get elected its harder to rely on the Lodge / Masonic or the GAA Clubs to bring them in than it was when 3000 would see you home

    5 it will UNLESS THERE IS COMMITTMENT to a shared future. Take SIF for example – one for you, one for us – 90% allocated to sectarian projects (in the sense of seperated) and very little to promote reconcilliation and inclusion. What a waste. What an opportunity missed

  • chrisjones2

    You can ask the same of SF …..

  • Lex.Butler

    He’ll be remembered (i.e .forgotten) as the Eddie McAteer of Unionism, a man who led a sectarian party and forgot its roots when he told supporters to vote for them’uns.
    Unionism comes in two flavours which SF seem to have forgotten. There’s full strength orange infused version that the DUP/UUP represent. Then there’s the other decaff version that either votes Alliance/Green or doesn’t bother but still remains strongly unionist. They’ll come out for a border poll. Circling the wagons won’t make these people vote for Unionist parties.

  • Gingray

    Lex, are you forgetting that nationalism too comes in multiple flavours, some dont vote, some vote alliance?

  • Lex.Butler

    No, thankfully PR throws up a better reflection of the makeup of a society than first past the post.

  • Gingray

    Ah, the classic unionist unicorn syndrome – only unionism has non voters, and only unionists vote Alliance/Green.

  • Lex.Butler

    Your interpretation, not mine. There are unionist voters who never vote for a Unionist party, just as there are Republican who never vote for sectarian republicans. But the article is about unionism. The unionist viewpoint has far greater support than the parties wrapped in the UnionJack as opinion polls constantly support. That the Unionist parties are in retreat doesn’t mean that UI is any closer.

  • Nevin

    The electorates in North Antrim and East Londonderry received the same message yet the voting patterns were very different so I suspect the ‘vision’ thing isn’t a significant factor. The DUP and SF run professional operations; the UUP and SDLP are still rank amateurs.

  • Gingray

    I agree with your last line to a degree – it does not mean it is any closer per se, but the raison d’etre of Northern Ireland being a Protestant State for a Protestant People is dead and buried.

    Unionism needs to figure out what its for, and all the while understand that under the age of 60 its natural voters are now a minority when compared to nationalism.

    How they deal with that in part determines whether a UI is closer, but the fact they are discussing Unionist Unity is a sign of fear and panic, which is more likely to lead to a circling of the wagons rather than an inclusive approach, which will make the Unionist argument much less appealing.

  • ted hagan

    Nesbitt was a media man, not a politician. He was man of passion, not calculation. He meant well, but his political skills were amateur;. The SDLP second preference debacle was a shocking decision that should have come about, if ever, only through long hours of negotiation with the parties involved, not thought up on the hoof.
    There was no way in could reciprocated at such short notice.
    Ultimately he is a decent man who should have been in the Alliance Party, not the Ulster Unionists. Also he was handicapped by the early election call.
    One can only hope that any partnership between the DUP and Ulster Unionists would involve some weeding out of the bigoted extremists within the former and the toning down of their insulting and inflammatory language. Miracles can happen, I suppose

  • ted hagan

    Give examples.

  • Gavin Smithson

    Unionism need not be single issue. In Scotland we have several Unionist parties ( Lib/Lab/Con) to cater for the various flavours and positikns of unionist voters (it’s worth noting there is no corollary for the Nationalist movement but that’s another’s topic)

    In NI, with FPTP Electoral system coupled with a sizeable Nat minority (33% ish) in the past, it would have been Electoral suicide for a GB model of politics for Unionism

    This is why Unionism is a single issue movement in NI

  • Gavin Smithson

    Moderate progressive unionists seem to get spooked during elections. NI21 demise due to sudden redesignation a day prior to polls and Nesbitt’s SDLP second pref.

    Thinking on ones feet is one thing but impetuous is another.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    They are discussing a UUUC which is not Unionist Unity but a vehicle to maximise the total Unionist Vote across all bands ! This is a very interesting venture which seems popular in the sticks where I am from ?

  • Gingray

    One of the problems that Unionism has is the greater belfast/rest of ni divide.

    In greater Belfast/North Down etc, unity will be less appealing, but particularly along the border counties it will be an us v themmuns fight.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Agree, That is why it would be interesting to see how a UUUC would overcome this hurdle. Would be interesting to see which groups make up a new UUUC and is there a few positions at the table for the Liberal Wing of Unionism. I for one would hope there is !

  • Gingray

    I think that Unionist Unity could cause Alliance to become the defacto liberal Unionist party tbh

  • T.E.Lawrence

    And that is why I prefer the UUUC Model rather than a one stop unionist unity party. Unionism has to try to claw back Liberal Unionists rather than lose them into the ‘Others’ Camp. To me this is the biggest battle for Unionism which Arlene’s antics certainly did not help !

  • Granni Trixie

    I think you also have to factor in the impact of modernisation on people’s expectations. To retain their appeal political parties have to keep up or wither on the vine.

  • Gingray

    Indeed you do.

    I think the votes of parties is not that important, more looking at the various blocks. As such this election is less about nationalism (who only managed to turnout at the same level as unionists after years of underperforming) and more about how Unionism deals with losing its majority.

    Interesting to note than many Unionists for example have been reclaiming Alliance as their own (I remember the DUP reaction when Alliance designated as Unionist in the early days of the assembly, how times have changed), and are talking about Unity.

    Interesting times.

  • murdockp

    I can understand historically why being part of the Union would have been so important to a Unionist events such as watching a battleship being launched that was to enter the Royal Navy obviously would be a moment of pride for the workers. I get this, I see how being part of the worlds largest empire would have been a source of pride.

    But going forward why do the Unionist voices still want to be part of the Union? You literally have nothing in common with the rest of the UK. The UK would let you leave in a heartbeat such is the hassle that is NI.. he UK on the whole is secular, liberal and multicultural society, open to gay marriage, equality etc. the very opposite of the values of Unionists here in Northern Ireland have.

    This is evidenced by the very laws Unionists have promoted in NI from making prostitution illegal through to restricted access to abortion, short pub licencing laws, RHI, role of the private sector, which clearly show that Northern Ireland Unionists are not aligned with the laws and values of the rest of the UK.

    To Illustrate the point, ROI has now become culturally aligned with the rest of the UK as it is now socially liberal, embraces free trade, low taxation, detachment of religion from the state etc.

    Perhaps I can then be educated on this question, why is continued membership of a Union to a country which is no longer culturally aligned to your core beliefs and values so important to Unionists? I genuinely don’t understand.

  • Fear Éireannach

    But the nationalist minority in Scotland is 44% and possibly 51%?

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Unionism is a dying creed. Here is an interesting little anecdote from Scotland to show which way the wind is blowing:

    And the same process will be going on in NI. The inbuilt arrogance and cultural deafness of the tories is putting wind in the sails of freedom and the end of the remnants of empire.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The unionists have to recognise that Unionism was a piece in the historical jigsaw of empire. That jigsaw has now been broken up and most of the pieces have been lost, so there is no point any more in trying to put it all back together again. It is a racing certainty that Scotland will be independent in two years time. Wales, which after all had a pretty ferocious second-home fire bombing campaign in the not so far past, will grow increasingly restive. What would be the balancing point of a UK of England and NI? A UK dinosaur with one gigantic leg, saw toothed mouth, and one tiny grasping arm would be even more grotesque than the present version, which at least has four limbs..

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    The ‘you must be this fleggy to be a unionist’ could be the undoing of unionism.

  • eamoncorbett

    ROI ,low taxation ? 23% vat,universal social charge , private bin collections, property tax variable depending where you live and that’s not forgetting income tax plus pending charge for over usage of water, PRSI .

  • eamoncorbett

    I agree there are many flavours of unionism and the non voters would turn out for a border poll ,but there is currently no real leader of unionism , no visionary, no Mandela ,nobody who can stand up and make a speech that doesn’t make a thousand references to Northern Ireland. There is no sign of any “meet you halfway ” on the constitutional issue which could lead to Stormont actually functioning as an executive without the usual UK v UI debate that permeates all political activity.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Unionism in NI is not unionism.

    It is a self regulating club of nationalistic elitism that does not allow for independent thought or straying from accepted norms.

    The modern bar for what constitutes a unionist means that if people like Edward Carson (spoke Gaelic), Blair Mayne (loved the drink, singing and the crack) or George Best (all Ireland team) were about today they’d be considered traitors.

    Republicanism can (in theory ) attract people from all walks of life.

    Unionism thus far can’t.

  • Saint Etienne

    Interesting point.

  • Barneyt

    I regard nesbitt as a little lost. When he became part of the graduated response Alliance he nailed his colours to a mast he perhaps could not own. Orange order to his right, political representation from loyalists combatants on his left and extreme DUP somewhere in between. That combined with his flag antics did not make him a comfortable bedfellow to moderate Alliance style unionism. If he does belong in the latter camp, he took a dangerous dalliance, but it either shows a lack of identity or a desire to be part of something perhaps a little more hardcore.