UUP leader to galvanise party with 'hard slog' focus on regaining lost ground

 

Mike Nesbitt is set to pack a powerful punch as he addresses delegates at his first full annual party conference

MIKE NESBITT is the former UTV news anchor who decided to make the bold transition to full- time politics in Northern Ireland, his main brief to resurrect some of the declining fortunes of the Ulster Unionist Party.

His rise has been rapid. He took over as UUP leader at the end of March. Today, almost six months later, he addresses his first full annual party conference. It is an important day for him and for Ulster Unionists. He must begin to put his stamp on the party.

Married to another media personality, Lynda Bryans, there is a touch of local celebrity about the couple. They are as well known in the North as the likes of Pat Kenny and Ryan Tubridy in the Republic.

Nesbitt (55), a Cambridge graduate, has had a tricky start to his leadership. Fellow Strangford UUP Assembly member David McNarry has been expelled from the UUP. Loyal warhorse Lord (Ken) Maginnis – a politician who was a valuable and combative aide to former leader David Trimble when he was pushing the Belfast Agreement over the referendum line in 1998 – has quit the party. That followed a row about same- sex marriage.

Lord Maginnis (74) objected to the “deviant practice of homosexuality” and wondered would “the next thing be that we legislate for some form of bestiality?”

When he resigned from the party last month, his parting shot was that it was a “mistake” to elect Nesbitt as leader.

Some felt the matter could have been handled better and Nesbitt agrees, up to a point.

“With Ken the result was the exact opposite of what I would have chosen,” he says. “But Ken chose to use some language which caused unnecessary offence.”

Nesbitt says it was down to an issue of party discipline. Nesbitt himself supports civil partnership but opposes same-sex marriage.

A member of Gransha Presbyterian Church in east Belfast he explains: “It is a position I take based on the teachings of the church that marriage is a sacrament . . . Anyway the debate is going nowhere because there is no realistic prospect of same-sex marriage being introduced here.”

When he was campaigning for the UUP leadership, his wife was appearing in the Vagina Monologues. There was some surprise when under questioning he explained on radio that she had sought permission from their church to appear in the play, as if it was anybody else’s business.

But, says Nesbitt, that was purely a matter for his wife, who had said she had misgivings about being in the production because of her Christian beliefs, but felt the play would allow important issues such as human trafficking to be aired. “I supported her 100 per cent,” he stresses.

Nesbitt describes himself as a “struggling Christian” for whom his faith is important. As a youngster, he says he had a pretty disenchanted view of religion based on a preacher who “was saying to me basically, you are going to burn in hell”.

He says a minister who came to Gransha about 12 years ago, the Rev Mark Brown, “largely disarmed me . . . I told him organised religion has an awful lot to answer for, especially in this country, and he said ‘So do I’.”

Over a number of decades as a journalist, a period running a public relations firm and as a victims commissioner, Nesbitt has a considerable back story.

Today, however, his focus will be on delivering a strong speech and galvanising the UUP to regain some lost ground. Recovery will require “a long hard slog on the ground”, he will tell delegates.