Canny move by former media man Nesbitt

Posted By: May 16, 2016

Claire Simpson. Irish News (Belfast). Monday, May 16, 2016

“I know when to go out/And when to stay in/Get things done,” the late and always great David Bowie sang in Modern Love. It’s unlikely that the Ulster Unionists will ever opt to use the song at their next party conference, or that Bowie’s estate would ever allow it to be used in the first place, but leader Mike Nesbitt really should adopt it as his personal anthem.

As the assembly met last Thursday for the first time since the election, Mr Nesbitt announced his party would leave the power-sharing structures put in place by the Good Friday Agreement and form an official opposition.

It was a canny move from the former broadcast journalist and victims’ commissioner. The first day of the assembly, like the first day of school, was supposed to pass without any major dramas, no bickering among the Year 11s, no picking fights with the new kids. The focus was supposed to be on the big stories of the election campaign – the rise of People Before Profit (PBP) and the Green Party, the drop in the nationalist vote.

All eyes should have been on new assembly members, including PBP’s veteran campaigner Eamonn McCann, elected after a 46-year wait, and the DUP’s Carla Lockhart, who claimed the third highest personal vote in the election. We were supposed to herald the 50 per cent increase in the number of female MLAs.

Instead Mr Nesbitt’s announcement ensured all cameras were pointing directly at the Ulster Unionist benches. Perhaps announcing “let battle commence”, like an overly competitive dad playing Scrabble at Christmas, was a bit much but he did have a sense of occasion.

Mr Nesbitt certainly rattled the other parties, with the DUP and Sinn Féin criticising the announcement and Alliance leader David Ford dismissing it as “the soundbite of the day”. Former Ulster Unionist leader Lord Trimble insisted the move was a “sign of confidence”. Nevertheless, it does seem poignant that Mr Nesbitt was only able to move into opposition thanks a private members’ bill from independent unionist John McCallister, a former Ulster Unionist deputy leader, who lost his assembly seat last week.

So far the only true opposition at Stormont has been TUV leader Jim Allister, who seems to revel in being a thorn in the executive’s side. For years he has insisted the mandatory coalition is “absurd” and denies the electorate the right to vote parties into and out of power. Now he could be forgiven for thinking the Ulster Unionists are attempting to steal his thunder.

Mr Nesbitt has led something of a resurgence in his party. It gained the South Antrim and Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster seats last year and its assembly vote held  strong. But the leader has had a difficult act balancing the party of ‘Carson and Craig’, closely linked with the old Stormont elite, with his more progressive aspirations. The forthcoming marching season will be a further test. How can he continue to hold the support of the party’s Orange Order members without resorting to the old party trick of temporarily aligning itself with the DUP when it no longer shares power with the larger unionist party?

The party’s strength is his high profile. Its problem will be in not letting that profile dominate.

During recent television interviews at Stormont, when the policy of all parties appeared to be to crowd as many faces as possible onto the screen, few Ulster Unionists were as recognisable as the party leader. His own success in topping the poll in Strangford, a strong DUP area, did not lead to his party winning any extra seats. And he acknowledged as much himself, admitting that his election predictions had been “ambitious”.

In many ways the ‘other opposition’, the TUV, faces a similar problem. Mr Allister’s strong personal vote did not translate to wider success for the party. Although the decision to put the TUV leader’s face on all his party’s election posters may have sent a message to voters that the TUV=Jim Allister. The Ulster Unionists need to be careful that voters don’t come to see UUP=Mike Nesbitt.

Democracies, truly strong democracies, need a broad sweep of views, from People Before Profit’s ‘revolutionary socialism’ to the DUP’s social conservatism. The executive’s main difficulty has been trying to govern with a forced coalition of parties who share completely different views. In the last assembly term, the executive was rarely seen to ‘get things done’. Now Stormont appears to be finally evolving.

Someone should warn Nelson McCausland.