One by one, Nesbitt’s generals are leaving


ANALYSIS: The announcement of Fred Cobain as a DUP member yesterday had the feel of one of those defecting Syrian generals or intelligence chiefs whose name to us conveys nothing but whose position means that the move is significant.

Away from frontline politics for almost two years, Mr Cobain is not a name which many members of the public outside north Belfast would recognise if asked who he was.

But, given his experience and position, the defection is a significant blow to an Ulster Unionist Party whose troops’ morale has been sapped by a series of defeats, infighting and strategic mistakes.

Elected as one of eight party officers (with more than 300 votes) on the same day that Mike Nesbitt became leader, Mr Cobain was on the inner circle of the UUP and presumably privy to plenty of its secrets.

Since losing his MLA seat, he had been trusted by both Tom Elliott and Mr Nesbitt to do work on several sensitive issues, including an examination of the party’s chances at next year’s council elections.

As well as bringing that mental information with him, the timing of the move is perfect for the DUP.

A party which faces considerable internal unease over Peter Robinson’s handling of the flag protests was instantly able to divert attention onto its rival and reinforce the public perception that the UUP is the party which tends to be in the news because someone is being disciplined or leaving.

And Mr Nesbitt, already facing internal disquiet over his decision to co-chair a forum with the DUP, sees the man who sat beside him co-chairing the Unionist Forum’s first meeting on Thursday welcome to the DUP fold one of his party officers days later.

After years in the UUP, there will be plenty of material which his former party can throw at him — such as Mr Cobain’s claim two years ago that Peter Robinson was using Martin McGuinness as a “bogey man after working with him like Siamese twins for four years”.

Unionism is being reshaped. The chaos of recent weeks and the advent of a pan-unionist forum have dramatically changed the political landscape in a way which few, if any, yet understand.

It is not yet a year since Mike Nesbitt became UUP leader with 80 per cent of the vote. But, having seemingly lost the confidence of moderates such as John McCallister and Basil McCrea, losing another traditionalist is an ominous sign for his authority and his party’s future.