UUP and SDLP form new ‘partnership’ in Northern Ireland

Unionist party leader Mike Nesbitt says alliance will work against DUP and Sinn Féin

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Mike Nesbitt has proposed working "partnership" with the SDLP in order to create "middle ground politics" as an alternative to the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Demonstrating that ambition to forge a new relationship with nationalists, Mr Nesbitt invited the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood to address the UUP annual conference at the Ramada Hotel in south Belfast on Saturday.

Mr Nesbitt put forward himself and Mr Eastwood as an alternative to the DUP and Sinn Féin led by First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

"Vote me, you get Colum. Vote Colum, you get me," he told the conference. "Vote Colum and me, and you get a whole new middle ground politics, dedicated to making Northern Ireland work, whatever our different motivations."

Currently the UUP and the SDLP are designated as the official Opposition at Stormont and therefore do not have any Ministers in the Northern Executive.

“Of course, if the Opposition is going to offer an alternative to the current Executive, we need to convince the electorate we are a viable replacement for the current DUP/Sinn Féin government,” said Mr Nesbitt.

The UUP leader said while it was early days for Opposition that “behind the scenes” the two parties were working well together.

Referring to Mr Eastwood he said: “Do we agree on everything? Of course not. But can we find a way of doing business together? Absolutely.”

Mr Eastwood in his earlier speech to the conference said to applause: “Since the election there has been plenty of interest as to whether the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party will work together in opposition. The answer is simple - of course we will.”

Mr Nesbitt raised the possibility of the two parties forming a shadow team of Ministers to scrutinise the DUP- and Sinn Féin-dominated Executive.

"I look forward to better times ahead. Who knows? Maybe a proper shadow Executive, promoting policies that actually address and solve the problems of a post-sectarian, post peace process era for Northern Ireland. "

Mr Nesbitt said that in the May Assembly elections his party “campaigned for Northern Ireland’s first post-sectarian election, where the issue was belief in a party’s ability to deliver on the issues that matter - the economy, education, housing and health”.

In contrast he accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of “playing on people’s fears” by conducting a sectarian campaign, and of the DUP campaigning on “vote Arlene (Foster) or you get Martin”.

“Of course, the irony is this. When you vote Arlene, you’re basically guaranteed you get Marty. Politically, they’re joined at the hip,” he said.

Mr Nesbitt said while the UUP formally supported the UK remaining within the European Union the party accepted the overall UK vote to leave. But he also noted how many nationalists were "shell-shocked" by the result.

"For years, they had been happy living in a Northern Ireland that was part of the United Kingdom. Their 'todays' were about making money and educating their children. A united Ireland was for tomorrow - some vague time in the future," he said.

“Brexit has rattled them. The Belfast Agreement in 1998 guaranteed the consent principle, and they never saw that being breached by a UK-wide vote to exit the European Union.

“I have said the days of Remainers and Brexiteers are over, but we must move on in a way that is mindful and respectful of the impact on our nationalist brothers and sisters,” added Mr Nesbitt.

“Identity can no longer be defined in the narrow, binary terms of unionist or nationalist, Orange or Green, Protestant or Catholic. The Belfast Agreement made arrangements to respect complexity. We must honour that commitment and respect the fact there will be new ‘norms’ as we build a new Northern Ireland we can all take pride in.”

On the past Mr Nesbitt said what was needed was a series of “acknowledgement statements” from governments and parties.

“The bottom line is people made choices. Republicans cannot justify their terrorism by blaming others. It is perverse to argue that someone forced them to pick up the gun and the bomb. They made that choice,” he said.

"If Martin McGuinness was prepared to make such an acknowledgement statement he might be surprised by the responses that could follow, from the British Government, and from Dublin and Washington, and from the local political parties," said Mr Nesbitt.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times