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?