Posted By: October 22, 2014


Brian Feeney.Irish News ( Belfast). Wednesday, October 22, 2014
MIKE Nesbitt's speech at his party conference would be in line for the prize as the
worst leader's speech of all time if Alasdair McDonnell didn't hold the all-comers
title for his performance the day he was elected SDLP leader. 

You have to wonder if Nesbitt is learning on the job. After all, he was a spectator
and observer of northern politics for most of the Troubles but obviously didn't
learn much. Entering the fray when everything calmed down hasn't made it any easier.
There seems to be a disconnect between how he sees himself and his party and how he
presents himself and his party in his remarks. 

On April 1 2012 (an appropriate date) he told the BBC: "I can't imagine any
circumstances where it would be good for the Ulster Unionist Party, good for the
pro-union people of Northern Ireland or good for politics to have an electoral
pact." Last Saturday he proposed an electoral pact with the DUP. No new
circumstances have emerged since 2012. Was he really so inexperienced in 2012 that
he couldn't see the UUP could never win Fermanagh/South Tyrone if another Unionist

He deplored the 'traditional sectarian politics' in the north yet his electoral pact
buttresses sectarian politics. Basically it's 'count the Prods'. Furthermore he
doesn't seem to see his proposal helps Sinn Fein by convincing nationalists that in
north Belfast a vote for SDLP is really a vote for the DUP and that it's on the
cards Gerry Kelly is likely to win the seat. Similarly in Fermanagh/South Tyrone his
planned pact will galvanise Sinn Fein and at the same time render any Nationalist
opponent a vote splitter who could hand the seat to Unionism. 

Does he not see how laughable it is for him to deplore traditional sectarian
politics when he happily sat at a joint unionist/loyalist table in July alongside
the political representatives of the UVF and UDA? Is there not a bit of a
contradiction that he signed up with these groups who are destroying Unionist
working-class populations in north and west Belfast to engage in a 'graduated
response' to the Parades Commission's determinations? If that's not sectarian
politics, what is? 

Did it not occur to him there was a certain inconsistency in spending a chunk of his
speech attacking the DUP, condemning its 'carve-up' with Sinn Fein at Stormont and
then advocating getting into bed with the same party? 

If he wants his supporters in north Belfast to vote DUP, in what way is the UUP

Answer none. It's just count the Prods. That's all he's offering. Essentially he's
saying the UUP is interchangeable with the party he spent part of his speech

The speech was a shameful performance, illogical, badly thought out and inherently
contradictory offering the opposite of what he was proclaiming in other parts of his

No wonder the DUP response was derisory. For a start they want to negotiate behind
closed doors and secondly they want to devour the UUP, not make deals with them. The
DUP knows Fermanagh/South Tyrone is unwinnable. Don't forget there was a single
Unionist last time and Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew triumphed. As a reward for
splitting the vote the SDLP lost its assembly seat the next year. Poor Nesbitt is
not at the races. He doesn't realise he can't make a deal with the DUP alone because
their nemesis Jim Allister can't be ignored and secondly, the DUP and Allister both
suspect Nesbitt's real target is South Belfast. The real key is of course East
Belfast. Will there be an agreed candidate against Naomi Long who is otherwise

All in all not a speech worthy of the leader of a serious party: narrow, sectarian,
instantly forgettable, offering a pig in a poke deal but devoid of any suggestions,
let alone proposals, for resolving the bitter disputes to be discussed in the talks
agenda our proconsul devised to save Peter Robinson from the assassins in his own

Fundamentally of course what you heard on Saturday was another King Canute
performance trying to fend off the green tide lapping round his ankles. 

Agreed candidate or not, demography will inevitably ensure the result in Belfast
that Nesbitt's ill-conceived scheme seeks to avoid.