MIKE Nesbitt has defended the late selection of unionist unity candidate Nigel Lutton, despite the IRA victim only being agreed 21 days before the Mid Ulster by-election, giving him limited time to canvass the constituency and raise his profile.
Mr Lutton was selected only last Thursday – long after the SDLP and Sinn Fein candidates were chosen – despite the fact that Martin McGuinness first announced eight months ago that he would resign and force a by-election.
A 2010 report by the then UUP vice chairman Terry Wright – who just weeks ago quit the party in protest at Mr Nesbitt’s leadership – savaged the UCUNF experiment for its late selection of candidates, something the report said “had a detrimental impact on the campaign”.
The report, which has never officially been made public by the party, also said that slow candidate selection “created an impression of indecision, uncertainty and disagreement”.
Just three months ago Mr Nesbitt promised to learn from that report when he addressed the Foyle UUP association and, referring to the slow selection of candidates under UCUNF, the UUP leader said: “That will not happen on my watch.”
When it was put to Mr Nesbitt that Mr Lutton has been chosen just three weeks ahead of an election – which is shorter notice than UCUNF, which chose its last candidate four weeks before the 2010 General Election – he began to laugh.
He doesn’t see a problem with that?
“No I don’t see a problem with that. This is a by-election.”
But if he is serious about winning the seat, should the candidate not be in place as early as possible?
“The by-election was [formally] as far as I know, called on a Tuesday and we agreed a candidate on the Thursday. What’s slow about that?”
Mr Nesbitt differentiates between the by-election and scheduled elections such as the European election next year, for which Jim Nicholson has been selected as the party’s candidate.
“That’s what I meant about early selection of candidates and that’s what I delivered with Jim Nicholson. With the by-election, as soon as the writ was moved, we had a unanimous agreement within the party on the candidate. I don’t see the problem with that.
“I also have to say to you that we will now be moving during the course of this year to continue to analyse the implications for the ‘super councils’ elections if they are to come and we’re also looking at the implications for Westminster in 2015 to ensure that we have a sufficient pool of candidates to be considered for all these various seats.”