Unionist sectarianism “burned” me from UUP leader job, says Mike Nesbitt

Posted By: February 17, 2020

Mike Nesbitt quit as UUP leader in 2017.

David Young, Press Association.17 February, 2020

A former UUP leader has blamed unionist sectarianism for driving him from office as he urged unionism to wake up to the existential threat facing it.

Mike Nesbitt compared unionism to a frog sitting in a pot of water unaware of the threat to its life as the temperature gradually rises.

Mr. Nesbitt said unionists needed to stop “disregarding the importance of human rights” and start thinking about how to tackle sectarianism within society.

The Strangford assembly member was addressing the launch of a new report on sectarianism at Parliament Buildings in Stormont.

Sectarianism: The Key Facts was commissioned by the Equality Coalition – an alliance of non-governmental organisations convened by the public service union Unison and human rights organisation, the Committee on the Administration of Justice.

Mr. Nesbitt quit as UUP leader in 2017 after a disappointing assembly election.

Some attributed his party’s poor performance to Mr. Nesbitt’s campaign pledge to transfer his second preference vote to the SDLP as he urged voters to back a middle-ground power sharing coalition.

Addressing today’s event at Stormont, Mr. Nesbitt recalled as a child being driven by his father to the hills around Belfast to watch sectarian disorder that saw Catholics and Protestants burned from their homes.

“A more recent memory is a couple of years ago when I was leader of the Unionist party and I said I would give a preference vote in the 2017 election to the SDLP and, figuratively, I was burned out of office by some rather sectarian reaction from the unionist community.

“My message, completely thinking from the unionist perspective, to unionists is wake-up.”

Mr. Nesbitt said the old reality of a Protestant majority in the north was gone.

He said Northern Ireland was no longer the binary Protestant or Catholic – but was instead an increasingly diverse society.

Mr. Nesbitt, who co-sponsored the report launch at Stormont with SDLP MLA Colin McGrath, then referenced a story he had read recently about how a certain species of frog reacts when in a pot of warming water.

“The characteristics of the frog is if you put it in a pan of cold water and slowly and really slowly bring the water to the boil the frog dies because it doesn’t realise that the environment around it is changing in a manner that represents an existential threat to its existence,” he said.

“And I think and fear that unionism sometimes is that frog.

“We need to be aware that things are changing. We need to stop disregarding the importance of human rights and we need to think about how we tackle sectarianism.”

Mr. Nesbitt said one of the most effective ways to tackle sectarianism would be the creation of a single education system.

“If you are mixing children from the ages of three or four every day you are giving them an inoculation against sectarianism.

“And if we can tackle sectarianism we can tackle one of the most toxic legacies of our Troubles.”

The 50-page report was penned by independent researcher Dr. Robbie McVeigh.

Dr. McVeigh said there was a need to consider the problem in the context of Northern Ireland’s changing demographic landscape.

He said the region was no longer characterised by a Protestant majority and Catholic minority and was instead a place of “three minorities” – Protestant, Catholic and increasing number who identify as neither.

He said disparities between Protestants and Catholics still existed in many areas across the public sector – expressing particular concern about stalled efforts to make the PSNI more representative of the community it serves.

He urged authorities in Northern Ireland to learn from an initiative undertaken by former prime minister Theresa May when she ordered an audit of all government departments to establish areas where racial disparities existed.

Dr. McVeigh said departments were then challenged to either explain the disparities or take action to address them.

Stormont Junior Minister Declan Kearney also addressed the event. He insisted the executive was committed to tackling the “poison” of sectarianism.

“Sectarianism remains endemic within northern society and in my view it is at the very crux of all our political, social and community divisions,” he said.

“Sectarianism isn’t some kind of abstract concept – it is omnipresent.

“In many ways, it is our elephant in the room.”