Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has raised the possibility of an electoral arrangement with the SDLP ahead of next year’s General Election.
In an interview with News Letter columnist Alex Kane, one of Mr Nesbitt’s sharpest critics, the former journalist said about the possibility of electoral deals: “Would there be a conversation to be had with the SDLP? Yes, possibly.”
He also offered an olive branch to nationalism, suggesting that Stormont should contain some symbols of nationalist history alongside the famous statues of Lords Carson and Craig.
Mr Kane, who is a former UUP director of communications but is no longer a member of the party, asked Mr Nesbitt about the possibility of a deal with the DUP ahead of the Westminster poll.
Mr Nesbitt responded with a question of his own: “But would that ‘understanding’ be with the DUP necessarily, or could it be with the SDLP?”
When asked to expand on what form the ‘understanding’ could take, he said that it could be “in the same sense that there could be an understanding with the DUP”.
Mr Nesbitt stressed that his focus is on his own party but the comments may be seen by some as an attempt to create a bargaining chip with the DUP ahead of likely talks about which seats to contest.
There were UUP-SDLP talks about a decade ago which could have led to an electoral pact of sorts but the initiative failed to materialise.
And in 2007 senior SDLP figure Margaret Ritchie told the UUP conference that the two parties should become “better friends” and “explore areas where there was scope for practical cooperation”.
In recent years the two parties have moved further apart, with the SDLP infamously voting to name a play park after an IRA gunman (a decision it later apologised for) and supporting would-be murderer Gerry McGeough at a meeting where his victim was present. Meanwhile, the UUP has been seen by many as having moved onto more traditional unionist territory, leading opposition to the Maze peace centre and vocally supporting several loyal order marches in Belfast which are opposed by the SDLP.
But Mr Nesbitt said that he was prepared to support the inclusion of nationalist symbols at Stormont – even if the DUP attempt to use his stance to undermine him.
He said: “I am very sympathetic to the fact that we have a statue of Carson and Craigavon here, but we don’t have any statues that would represent Irish nationalism here, never mind Irish republicanism.
“And I think that is something which is not fair and should be addressed. We cannot pretend that Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism does not have a past.”
When it was put to him that the DUP could respond by claiming that “Mike Nesbitt wants statues of Michael Collins up at Stormont”, he replied: “Yes, they probably will do that because that’s the kind of selfish, ourselves alone attitude of the DUP.
“Is it fair that in this building – which since 1998 is no longer a majoritarian government – that there isn’t some sort of recognition of the nationalist and republican past?”