John McCallister: Mike Nesbitt failed to prepare his own party for his radical change of heart

Mike Nesbitt at his Ulster Unionist Party manifesto launch this week at the Park Avenue Hotel in Belfast, with senior party members behind him. 
Photo by Arthur Allison, Pacemaker Press
Mike Nesbitt at his Ulster Unionist Party manifesto launch this week at the Park Avenue Hotel in Belfast, with senior party members behind him. Photo by Arthur Allison, Pacemaker Press

In May 2015, the Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt voted for the DUP East Belfast candidate in the Westminster election – part of the DUP-UUP electoral pact to dislodge the Alliance MP Naomi Long.

It was, so were told, essential to win the seat back for unionism.

The former MLA John McCallister. Picture by Matt Mackey/presseye.com

The former MLA John McCallister. Picture by Matt Mackey/presseye.com

On Sunday past, Mike Nesbitt declared that he would be transferring his vote to the SDLP in the forthcoming Assembly election.

This is, to put it mildly, something of a radical change.

The radical change, however, clearly had not been communicated to the rest of the Ulster Unionist Party, as the response of UUP Assembly candidates has shown. Nor – somewhat embarrassingly – was it communicated to the SDLP, whose leader when asked if he would transfer to the UUP looked as if he had been asked on holiday by an awkward neighbour with poor social skills.

As for the voters – it doesn’t take much political imagination to realise that they are probably as shocked and confused as everyone else by this change of direction by Mike Nesbitt.

Reaching across the divide: UUP leader Mike Nesbitt along with Lord Empey, UUP party chair, and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, last October at UUP conference.

 Photographer - � Matt Mackey / Press Eye

Reaching across the divide: UUP leader Mike Nesbitt along with Lord Empey, UUP party chair, and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, last October at UUP conference. Photographer - � Matt Mackey / Press Eye

Don’t get me wrong.

I am firmly committed to the normalisation of Northern Ireland politics.

We should reach a point when opposition parties, offering themselves as an alternative government, urge their voters to transfer to one another.

But there is a very significant difference between a considered political strategy, worked out in partnership over years, persuading voters of its ability to make Northern Ireland a better place, and a sound-bite thrown into an election campaign interview in order to get a headline.

Unionist unity: Then DUP and Ulster Unionist leaders Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt at the Ballymena Electoral office with, centre, agreed candidate Nigel Lutton for the Mid Ulster by-election in 2013. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Unionist unity: Then DUP and Ulster Unionist leaders Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt at the Ballymena Electoral office with, centre, agreed candidate Nigel Lutton for the Mid Ulster by-election in 2013. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

Well, Mike Nesbitt has certainly got his headline, dislodging RHI from the front pages and bringing back an old, familiar story – UUP divisions and confusion.

If the UUP is to offer a real alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein Executive, some form of partnership with the SDLP has to be on the cards.

In fact, to maximise the opportunities for the Opposition to demonstrate that it could be an alternative government, this should also include Alliance: a renewed centre-ground, embracing both moderate unionism and moderate nationalism.

Instead of this, what we now have is the kernel of a good idea, thrown into an election campaign interview with little or no preparation, and now torn and soiled like a wet paper bag.

This is precisely what happens when short-term pursuit of headlines takes the place of political vision, conviction and planning.

What are the lessons to be learnt here for the UUP?

Firstly, what should be startlingly obvious, the hard work of setting out an alternative political vision to the Executive needs to be begin years before an election – not two weeks before polling day.

Secondly, if the UUP is to be really in the business of offering such an alternative, merely sitting alongside the SDLP and Alliance on the Opposition benches is not enough – these parties must work together to convince voters that they are an authentic alternative.

Thirdly, the UUP has to once and for all decide whether it is reconciled to perpetual tribal politics or is committed to a post-sectarian, normalisation of our politics.

Until this happens, we can only expect more of the same unconvincing, mixed messages.

• John McCallister was an Ulster Unionist MLA for South Down, who then helped found NI21. He then sat as an independent until losing his seat at last year’s Assembly election