Newton Emerson: Nesbitt like a man who ponders but cannot plot

UUP’s eccentric leadership no match for cynical rule changes given to SF and DUP

 Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt. Photograph: Alan Betson

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

In last year’s Stormont elections, the SDLP, UUP and Alliance received the highest percentage of transfers from other parties, in that order. The DUP and Sinn Féin lagged considerably behind.

In a survey last month, polling company LucidTalk found a significant trend among UUP and SDLP supporters to transfer exclusively to each other’s parties.

Reaching out to these people without alienating traditional voters is the task facing UUP and SDLP leaders Mike Nesbitt and Colum Eastwood – a task they face separately, even before developing it jointly. On entering opposition last May, they had five years until the next scheduled election to get their pitch right. Work began at the conference season last October, with Eastwood addressing the UUP and Nesbitt coining the phrase “vote Mike, get Colum” – a promise, not a warning.

Nesbitt often seem like a man who ponders but cannot plot, perhaps the exact opposite of what it takes to succeed in Northern Ireland politics.

To say this message needed finessing would be putting it mildly. Eastwood was crucified by Sinn Féin; Nesbitt was attacked by members of his own party. But then the DUP-Sinn Féin coalition suddenly collapsed, gifting the centre parties a chance to sit tight and soak up disaffected voters. That chance was blown in a BBC interview last Sunday when Nesbitt and Eastwood were asked the question logically arising from their joint opposition stance – would they give a second preference to each other?

The UUP leader said he would, as a personal choice but not as a party policy. This was classic Nesbitt – a nuance without the necessary groundwork. It had plainly not been cleared with Eastwood, who gave a more circumspect answer. Nor had it been properly discussed within the UUP and representatives began dissenting immediately.

Worse still, as the media spotlight swivelled away from the woes of the DUP, Nesbitt’s eccentric leadership was once again illuminated. He took control of his party in 2012 by vowing never to go into opposition, yet performed the executive’s first unofficial and official departures. He presents himself as the ultimate moderate, yet gives free rein to hardliners. He stopped the UUP’s decline with a unionist pact, yet now wants cross-community voting and while the pact applied to Westminster elections, that distinction would need to be carefully explained.

Nesbitt often seem like a man who ponders but cannot plot, perhaps the exact opposite of what it takes to succeed in Northern Ireland politics.

Hostile manner

Whatever the flaws in his approach, he is genuinely committed to changing the tone. Reports differ dramatically on Nesbitt and Eastwood’s personal relationship but just claiming a good rapport is progress – and pertinent, given how much of the present crisis is due to the DUP leader’s hostile manner.

In normal coalition-building, it is enough for each party to maximise their vote then seek a deal. Pre-election flirtation might only create hostages to fortune. Northern Ireland’s system is different. Mandatory power-sharing outlines the structure of every government in advance, so prospective partners can benefit from an obvious willingness to co-operate. The minimum signal for this is civility. Eastwood has ruled out anything that might constitute a shared platform, saying quite rightly that it is unnecessary. However, Sinn Féin and the DUP fought last May’s election under the Fresh Start agreement, which effectively was a joint platform. When the UUP and SDLP started hinting that they would go into Stormont’s newly-created opposition, Fresh Start became a platform for two-party government. This only seemed to enhance its electoral appeal, especially with DUP supporters.

What really stops the UUP and SDLP offering an alternative is that a Stormont executive must be led by the largest nationalist and unionist parties and there is no guarantee of the “moderates” leading both blocs. If the requirement instead was for the largest nationalist and unionist coalition to lead the executive, choice could be offered and power-sharing preserved.

This would undoubtedly be portrayed by Sinn Féin and the DUP as an outrageous change to the Belfast Agreement. In fact, it would be closer to the original rules under that deal. The title of first minister – a totem in the latest stand-off – used to be given not to the largest party, but to the largest party of the largest designation. David Trimble, for example, would have been first minister even if the UUP had fewer seats than the SDLP, as long as unionism still had more seats overall.

Sinn Féin and the DUP had this rule changed after the 2006 St Andrew’s agreement, turning party size into a tribal competition. The DUP also wanted unionist and nationalist designations to be declared on ballot papers, rather than at the first sitting of the assembly.

In other words, pre-election co-ordination could be facilitated as long as it benefitted hardliners.

Sinn Féin is now running to London again, demanding that changes to the status quo be imposed over the DUP’s head. If such a thing is possible, could the centre parties not agree some proposals of their own?

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