Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has not ruled out another electoral pact with the DUP – despite his party now leading Stormont’s Official Opposition to the DUP-led Executive.
In an interview with the News Letter ahead of his party’s annual conference today, Mr Nesbitt made clear that there is still the possibility of a general election electoral deal with the UUP’s larger unionist rival.
A DUP-UUP deal in last year’s Westminster election which saw each party stand aside in favour of each other in four constituencies saw the UUP gain an MP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The party gained a second MP outside of the pact area when Danny Kinahan defeated the DUP’s Willie McCrea in South Antrim.
With a new prime minister, the Labour Party in open disarray and intra-Tory warfare over how Brexit will unfold, there is the possibility of a snap general election at some point in coming months.
That would present Mr Nesbitt with a tricky proposition: solidify the UUP’s position as the Opposition to the DUP-led Executive by standing against Arlene Foster’s party in every seat, or pragmatically seeking to hold the two Westminster seats which he won last year by continuing the pact.
Sitting in his Stormont office, Mr Nesbitt – who has now been UUP leader for four and a half years – confidently says: “I would have thought if the DUP genuinely bought into my concept of maximising the number of pro-Union MPs, which was the basis of my thinking for 2015, surely they would give Tom Elliott a free run in Fermanagh?
“Because if another unionist runs you are giving the seat to Sinn Fein – you are literally gifting it to Sinn Fein.”
If the DUP did voluntarily stand aside in favour of Mr Elliott, would he reciprocate in East Belfast?
“The deal that I offered was an anti-abstentionist seat based on two seats – North Belfast and Fermanagh-South Tyrone. Circumstances developed over the course of those negotiations and it became a deal that I wasn’t... it certainly wasn’t my first choice.
“I would have thought my starting position would have been the same as last time – I’m interested in MPs who fully engage in their role. I don’t like the idea of people being represented by abstentionists.”
Does that not create difficulty for him as leader of the Opposition, in urging voters to support a party which at Stormont he says is failing the public?
“It doesn’t because there’s no policy. It’s simply the number of pro-Union MPs who go to Westminster and I think that’s very important because in 2010 it became nine pro-Union against nine not pro-Union.
“Had it gone 10-8 to not pro-Union, you know the clamour there would have been for a border poll...my strategy was to maximise the number of pro-Union MPs and we got it to 11-7. I think that’s a much better position for the unionist people, a much better position for all the people of Northern Ireland.
“It was done on that basis; it wasn’t done on the basis that we have a common economic policy or a common policy on health or on any of the social issues. It was simply that we need the maximum number of pro-Union Members of Parliament.”
But isn’t the logic of that position that his hands are tied irrespective of what the DUP policy is – so long as the party is pro-Union, whatever its policy he must stand aside in the DUP’s favour in certain seats?
Mr Nesbitt says: “I would like the maximum number, always, the maximum number of our MPs to be pro-Union.”
When asked if there are any policies which the DUP could adopt that would make it impossible for him to stand aside in their favour, Mr Nesbitt says it is a “hypothetical question” and asks for examples.
When issues areas such as gay marriage, abortion and the death penalty are mentioned, the UUP leader says: “You see, those don’t give us difficulty as a party because we treat those as matters of conscience and therefore it is down to individuals...”
Pointing to a number of policy papers in areas from mental health to education which the UUP published ahead of May’s Stormont election, Mr Nesbitt says that he was “trying, because we felt the time was right, to get beyond the sectarian headcount and say ‘these are devolved institutions, which look after the day to day bread and butter issues – the economy, health, education, housing – and that’s how we fought it.
“But we know on the doorstep what we came up against was ‘I’d love to support you but we have to keep them ‘uns out; we’ve got to stop Marty getting in’.”
If he is accusing the DUP of a sectarian appeal to the electorate in the Assembly election, is he not also guilty of such a charge in the Westminster election by forming a pan-unionist pact in certain seats to keep out Sinn Fein (or in East Belfast, the Alliance Party)?
Mr Nesbitt responds that in the general election he was not saying that a nationalist MP would be a “disaster for Northern Ireland”, but adds: “I believe that Northern Ireland is best served when the maximum number of MPs are pro-Union, and also are not abstentionist”.
The issue of the next general election could also complicate relations with his new Opposition partner, the SDLP, if there is a unionist pact.
Mr Nesbitt characterises his relationship with SDLP leader Column Eastwood – who today will address the UUP conference, a symbolic olive branch from the party which once dominated Northern Ireland politics – as positive.
And further down the chain, Mr Nesbitt says that the two parties are working well, with frequent contact between their whips and MLAs. But he admits that the aftermath of the EU referendum was a challenge for the two main Opposition parties because, although both supported a Remain vote, the SDLP is attempting to overturn the result while the UUP is determined that the outcome of the referendum should be implemented by the government.
But, stressing that the two parties can act in ways which he thinks are impossible for the DUP and Sinn Fein, he says that he and Mr Eastwood will work together and appear together in ways and in places “that the First and deputy First Minister can’t”.