Today's anchorman is tomorrow's parliamentarian


In giving us memories of people we have never known, television lays the groundwork for a career in politics, writes ANN MARIE HOURIHANE

IT IS very interesting that Mike Nesbitt has been elected leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Ah, you remember Mike Nesbitt, who is not to be confused with Mike Nesmith, who was the one in the hat from the Monkees. Mike Nesbitt presented the UTV news for about 10 years. He had a kind of home/gardening programme as well. Long- faced guy with small glasses. You do know him. You’d know him if you saw him.

That’s the thing, you see, about television. In giving us memories of and intimacies with people we have never known, it is laying the groundwork for a career in politics.

Today’s anchorman is tomorrow’s parliamentary representative, if he should damn well feel like it. We can blame Ronald Reagan, star sports broadcaster, for this.

Television women don’t slip over to the other side of the microphone quite as easily, although Miriam O’Callaghan has denied running for the Áras so often now that we’re all dusting off our hats for her inauguration; the NUJ is going to take a box for the day.

As politics collapses so television soars. Perhaps we should get ready for Marty Whelan as head of Fianna Fáil. It’s the recognition factor really.

The man Nesbitt replaced as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party is Tom Elliott, who is a farmer. His resignation came as quite a shock to his colleagues. Which of us down here can say we even knew that Elliott was leader of the Ulster Unionist Party in the first place?

Which of us down here can say that we know what Elliott looks like?

Elliott is right not to care what we think, particularly now that the agony of being party leader is over. (It occurs to a southerner that leading the Ulster Unionists might be as difficult and thankless as leading the Labour Party down here, but that hardly seems possible). Anyway, Elliott looks fine, actually, and wears suits. But he wasn’t in the living rooms of Ulster – and unintentionally in a lot of the living rooms of the Republic as well – for 10 long years. Not like Nesbitt.

On Saturday Nesbitt, who left television in 2006, defeated his rival for the leadership, John McCallister, by a crushing 536 votes to 129 despite the fact that McCallister had delivered his second child on to the floor of his bathroom during the week, and done quite a few interviews about the experience. But McCallister has never presented an evening news programme.

This is not to imply that Nesbitt is not a smart politician whose television career is his only advantage. On his election he not only did a cracking impersonation of his former broadcasting colleague Eamon Mallie he also said: “I want to reach out to become the party of choice for every pro-union voter in Northern Ireland, including those who still say they want a united Ireland, but privately accept there is no longer a single reason not to enjoy their continued membership of the United Kingdom.”

In other words, hello, Catholic middle class voters, and goodbye, the tarnished charms of the Republic. The British-funded public service in Northern Ireland is such an enormous part of the economy that it would be surprising if the biggest worry for a lot of Northern Catholics these days wasn’t George Osborne’s introduction of regional public sector pay rates.

Broadly speaking, these are calculated on the cost of living in the immediate vicinity where the workers live – and the cost of living in Northern Ireland is low – rather than on the UK-wide pay rates that now pertain.

Despite that particular sociological wind blowing its way there is no getting away from the fact that, although they both hate to hear it, the Ulster Unionist Party is the Fianna Fáil of Northern Ireland: once totally dominant, now trembling on the verge of extinction.

The tribal certainties that kept both parties on top have ebbed away. In such circumstances careers can be quickly made – Marty, stay by the phone.

Nesbitt was only elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011. In 2010 he tried unsuccessfully to replace the sitting MLA whom the Belfast Telegraph at that time charmingly referred to as “love cheat Iris Robinson”. (MLA stands for Member of the Legislative Assembly). Nesbitt’s is a meteoric rise by anybody’s standards, and it is not altogether explained by the fact that the career ladder in the Ulster Unionist Party has shortened so dramatically.

Whizzing through the North last week on our way to the dentist, and passing the time by counting the number of preternaturally clean cars, it was natural to wonder what is going to be said, on both sides of a now invisible Border, about Northern Ireland.

Soon we’ll all be traipsing up to look at that Titanic Centre, about which they are all so touchingly proud. The Titanic Centre is based on a couple of films and a television series.

Television is moulding our lives; it fills a lot of vacuums. It encourages us to stay the same. It keeps us passive. It is the dominant force in Ireland now that the ideas have died.

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