Interview: Mike Nesbitt ready to embrace NI’s future

After four difficult years, the Ulster Unionist Party leader is now in a stronger position

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt:  Confident more and more unionist voters will come back to the UUP from the DUP. Photograph: PA

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt: Confident more and more unionist voters will come back to the UUP from the DUP. Photograph: PA

 

“I have always said that politics is cyclical,” says Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt. “What goes around comes around.”

Facing into his fourth annual conference as UUP leader, he is in a pretty confident mood. This week a British government-appointed panel judged that not only did the IRA exist, but that its army council was still operating, that P O’Neill is not yet pensioned off.

Had Nesbitt not pulled his single Minister, Danny Kennedy, out of the Northern Executive following the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan, the panel probably would not have been established, its assessment would not have been written, and there would not have been the focus on him as a UUP leader who could play a tactical hand.

In quitting the Executive, Nesbitt also did something not many politicians have done: he outflanked Peter Robinson, putting him on the back foot.

When he was elected leader in 2012 several Ulster Unionists saw in Nesbitt the triumph of style over substance, but most think differently now.

Nationalist and DUP politicians have accused him of crude, self-serving electoral politics that could wreck Stormont but he is not bothered, paraphrasing the Mandy Rice-Davies line, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Three years ago, in an interview with The Irish Times ahead of his first party conference as leader, he said his tenure would be about the “hard slog” of restoring party fortunes. The following day he told the party he had no “big idea” for the way ahead.

But the wheel has turned, he feels. “It is time to take the managerial hat off and go for the vision, and that’s what party conference 2015 will be about.”

Low ebb

Assembly member David McNarry had already been expelled from the UUP, ending up in Nigel Farage’s Ukip. Lord (Ken) Maginnis had also quit after voicing very belligerent opposition to same-sex marriage. The following year, two MLAs, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, whom Nesbitt defeated for the leadership in March 2012, abandoned the UUP to establish the moderate NI21 party. In the Assembly the UUP was down from 16 to 13 seats. The DUP was now the dominant unionist force.

Nesbitt asserts that “hard slog”, internal party discipline and a “shrink to grow” policy had yielded good results. “By bringing a sense of teamwork, we have done three things. We have rediscovered our self-belief. We have generated a new-found degree of credibility with the public; and, the key one, we have momentum.”

Nesbitt believes that politics has come around again to facilitate a period of renewal and growth for the UUP. He is working to a 10-year plan and feels, notwithstanding the vagaries of politics (“events, dear boy”) that matters are going more or less according to script.

He is looking to two electoral cycles (local, European, Westminster and Assembly). Three-quarters of the first cycle is complete with the UUP doing well in the supercouncil elections, holding on to Jim Nicholson’s European seat, and electing two MPs when before the Westminster poll it had none. Next up are the Assembly elections in May – assuming Stormont survives until then.

Not bad for a party, he feels, that some in the media were writing off as being “potentially in terminal irreversible decline”.

Nesbitt says he wants to build on the 16 seats won at the last Assembly elections, not the 13 he holds now. He seems to have no intention of trying to woo McCrea or McCallister back into the party after the implosion of NI21. McCrea had probably burnt his boats in any case but McCallister, were he so minded, perhaps could be accommodated back into the fold.

But Nesbitt plays it hard: “We are where we are, what’s happened happened, there is no reverse gear on these things.”

He does not gloat but must be enjoying Robinson’s discomfiture as he goes out on a dangerous political limb to try to rescue Stormont and possibly his legacy. While he might deny it, Nesbitt appears to be seeking to do to the DUP what the DUP and Robinson did to one of his predecessors, David Trimble when he too was attempting to save the powersharing administration. What goes around . . .

Massive difference

And he recalls those days of Trimble-baiting and how signing up to that deal on Good Friday 17 years ago almost sank the UUP: “Go back to 1998, the Ulster Unionist Party sat down at Castle Buildings [Stormont] in the full knowledge that it was going to do significant damage to the party. And where were the DUP? They were a mile away at the gates shouting ‘traitor’ and ‘Lundy’. And that’s the difference.

“If we were like the DUP we would have joined them at the gates. If they had put the country first like us, they would have been at the negotiating table and we would have had a better deal for unionism in the ’98 Belfast Agreement.”

‘In denial’

He says he can’t see any circumstances in which he would return his Minister to the Executive before an election, even if he could, now the DUP has filled the vacancy.

“What we will do is campaign for as strong a mandate as we possibly can; not to go back into government in May ‘16, but to go into the negotiations for a programme for government.We will ask two questions,” Nesbitt says in a leaderly, self-assured manner.

“Is this a positive, progressive programme for government that will benefit all of the people and, number two, is there the collective political will to deliver this time? And if the answer is yes and yes, we are back in. If the answer to either is no, we will stay out.”