UNIONIST unity candidate Nigel Lutton has every chance of receiving votes from Roman Catholics – and even from nationalists – in the Mid Ulster by-election, Mike Nesbitt has claimed.
Mr Lutton, who was endorsed by the DUP, UUP and TUV last Thursday night, now has just 15 days to persuade voters to support him in the March 7 by-election called in the wake of Martin McGuinness’s resignation as an MP.
Mr Nesbitt’s decision to agree a candidate with the DUP in an election which is unwinnable for unionism, save for a seismic shift in the Mid Ulster electorate’s voting habits, has already seen two UUP MLAs resign and others within the party fear that it is becoming suffocatingly close to the DUP.
Mr Nesbitt dismissed those fears and hinted that unity candidates could be fielded in other elections if this “experiment” proves successful.
However, the UUP leader was reticent to define what a successful outcome would be for Mr Lutton, whose father was murdered by the IRA.
Mr Nesbitt said that he would assess not just the result, but how the unionist parties cooperate during the campaign and the reaction of voters on the doors.
The UUP leader said that he believed there was “still an outside chance” of winning the election, even though a unionist hasn’t held Mid Ulster since its boundaries were redrawn and the then MP, William McCrea, lost his seat to Mr McGuinness in 1997.
In last year’s Assembly election, Sinn Fein took almost half of the total vote while the three unionist parties’ combined vote was just 31.9 per cent.
“I really do think that when I hear people say ‘it is a sectarian head count’, that that is an awful comment because it assumes no Catholic would vote for Nigel Lutton.
“Nigel Lutton has worked for many Catholic victims. He’s worked for WAVE, which is absolutely across all sections of our community, he has worked for victims in Mid Ulster, both Protestant and Catholic, and I see no reason why you would assume that Catholics or indeed some nationalists would not vote for Nigel Lutton, particularly nationalists who would prefer that their Member of Parliament sat on the green benches once in a while.”
Why would nationalists not vote for Patsy McGlone, the SDLP candidate, who would take his seat at Westminster if elected?
“Well, they might well vote for Patsy McGlone but they may see in Nigel Lutton a man who’s representing what is effectively a forgotten community and that is to say, victims.”
In recent months, Mr Nesbitt has said that any unity candidate must have “Ulster Unionist values” and at one point he defined those as “the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”.
When asked what UUP values Mr Lutton has, Mr Nesbitt said: “The basic values would be: country first, party second, individual third. Now Nigel will possibly say ‘I have neither DUP nor Ulster Unionist connections anymore” (he was a Young Unionist) but look, this is a guy that we found...we put the name firstly to the DUP and they were happy and then we put the name to the TUV and Jim Allister was happy and it appears that all pro-Union parties are happy.
“Willie Frazer withdrew as soon as he heard the name and other pro-Union organisations are coming on board.”
Mr Nesbitt said that Mr Lutton also wanted to “build a better Northern Ireland” and said that he supports the current power-sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein at Stormont.
Does Mr Lutton support the Belfast Agreement?
“I believe he supports what the Belfast Agreement stands for. I mean are you asking me how he voted? I don’t know how he voted in 1998.”
Did Mr Nesbitt not ask him?
“I didn’t need to ask him. What I wanted to do was find out what does he stand for in 2013 and 2014 and 2015.”
He added: “There would be members of the Ulster Unionist Party who didn’t support the Belfast Agreement — you know that, I know that.”
Is that an issue for him?
“No, because this is 2013 and we look at what we do next; 1998 was always a transitional set of arrangements and it’s high time we moved on to the next level.
“In terms of what that means, we need a formal Opposition – and that is different from a party withdrawing from government because there is no space called Opposition for them to withdraw into – we still need a cross-community government to maintain community confidence, we need a smaller government, a more efficient government...”
When asked if he would accept that the unity strategy had failed if the total unionist vote fell, Mr Nesbitt said that there were “many provisos” about issues such as turnout which could not be assessed until after the vote.
“As well as March 7, which is the vote, we’ve got an entire process which has already kicked off so I will be measuring success in terms of how well the cooperation goes, particularly between ourselves and the DUP, because that’s where the media focus will be...it will be impossible to disaggregate the Ulster Unionist vote within that so to that extent measuring success and failure will not be possible because the raw data will not be there.”
Mr Nesbitt rejects those who believe that his decision not to field a UUP candidate in his first electoral test was evidence that he is afraid of the result.
“They would be wrong. All I can say to you is that my first preference, as always, is that you would field an Ulster Unionist and that they win. But if you can’t get your first preference you have to, by definition, go for preference two.
“As I said, that [second preference] is not to facilitate Francie Molloy and Sinn Fein to have an easy ride between now and March 7...”
When asked if he thought that if local UUP MLA Sandra Overend had stood against DUP rival Ian McCrea that the UUP vote would have significantly increased, Mr Nesbitt said: “You’re speculating on issues that we didn’t particularly consider.”
In an interview with the News Letter days before the UUP leadership contest last March, Mr Nesbitt was asked about unionist unity and said that there was “no evidence, and I think particularly of the last Fermanagh-South Tyrone situation, that it [unionist unity] works”.
When asked what had changed since then, Mr Nesbitt said: “I think, and as your newspaper’s editorial said on Saturday, it is something that is extremely popular on the ground; it’s something that the people were telling me that they wanted, and it wasn’t my decision.”
Mr Nesbitt said that there had been a “relatively short debate” at last Thursday’s Mid Ulster UUP constituency association and said that those who spoke had been “mostly but not exclusively” in favour of Mr Lutton. The meeting, he said, voted unanimously for Mr Lutton and there were no abstentions: “There was 100 per cent hands up in favour of Nigel Lutton.”
Mr Nesbitt added of next year’s European election: “I have to be mindful of what happens in 12 months’ time if somebody opens the door to Jim Nicholson or me with a Jim Nicholson rosette and are they going to say ‘You are the vote-splitters from 12 months ago, I didn’t want that’? Or are they going to say ‘Yeah, you guys listened and we’re with you’?”
Mr Nesbitt said that although Mr Lutton is not expected to win the seat, a single unionist candidate meant that “you maximise the chances of a win”.
When asked why he would not do that in every constituency to maximise the chances of a unionist victory, Mr Nesbitt said: “Well you wouldn’t necessarily need to do it everywhere and maybe as an experiment it won’t work so let’s see how it goes on March 7 and between now and then think about whether it’s a good idea.”
If it does work, the logic of that would appear to be that there would be unionist unity candidates across the Province?
“I would suggest that the logic of that is that you would look at it.”
Asked if he wasn’t ruling out such an agreement, Mr Nesbitt said: “I think it would be madness to rule things out that you don’t need to rule out. Politicians tend not to rule things out unless they absolutely have to or on conviction feel that it’s wrong.”