Alex Kane: After a long career in journalism and a brief stint as a Victims Commissioner, why the shift to party politics?
Mike Nesbitt: The stuff I took most pride in as a journalist was giving a voice to the victims. After the Shankill Bomb in 1993 UTV did a live programme with just those people who had lost loved ones in that bomb and we did it the Thursday after the Saturday explosion—and that, for the time, was cutting edge TV. So with that and with other stuff there was a theme in terms of the costs of the Troubles which corresponded very clearly, obviously, with the Victims Commission.
But the Victims Commission, when I was in it, was never going to work: because the model was wrong. Four co-equal chairs was not a workable proposition.
AK: But if you’d had the sense that it was going to work would you have stayed?
MM: What took me into the Commission was the belief that I could be someone of significant influence in that area and do some good in one sector. But the decision—wrongly—was to appoint four co-equal chairs. It had nothing to do with the individuals or personalities or whatever, but these were four people who had each applied to be the single Commissioner and therefore had thought it through to the nth degree, but we had our own visions and strategies and inevitably they clashed. And without anyone having a casting vote, as a proper chair would, it was never going to work: and I feel vindicated because when it came to the point when they could have renewed the contracts they decided not to and went for a single Commissioner in the person of Kathryn Stone.
AK: When you got involved in politics in 2009/10 it was at the time of the UCUNF project (the electoral pact between the UUP and the Conservative Party). Did that broader pan-UK, pro-Union vehicle, rather than a narrower local unionist vehicle, make it easier for you to get involved?
MN: Actually no, because I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the project. Some forms of Conservatism, the more right wing forms, I’m not comfortable with. What made it possible for me to support UCUNF was the social justice element—the Iain Duncan Smith type of Conservatism. And the fact that it was novel was part of the appeal in the sense that it was an attempt to normalize politics: and anything that is an attempt to normalize politics is something that I will support.
AK: Where would you put yourself on the left/right scale of politics?
MN: To my mind it is old-fashioned language to ask “are you left or right”? The old divisions between Conservative and Labour are gone for decades now and the test that I would apply to something is ‘fairness,’ rather than is it consistent with a centre-left or centre-right policy. I mean, some people might think that on the peace centre at the Maze I swung very much to the right, but then on supporting the Islamic centre and Muslims in Belfast that I’ve gone very kind of wooly liberal.
But to my mind what I’ve done there is applied the test of what is the fair thing to do and clearly victims—or a significant section of them—did not want a peace centre at the Maze. And in terms of the Islamic centre, I couldn’t tell you how many churches, chapels and cathedrals we have for Christian worship in this country. There are at least 4000, maybe 8000, Muslims here and they do not have one appropriate place of worship. They have a Mosque up at Wellington Park which is not fit for purpose and they have a cultural centre which is past its sell-by date. Is it too much to say that that number of people should have one appropriate place of worship? I don’t think so. I just think that it’s a basic fairness.
I’ve had the equivalent of hate mail from people who say there’s going to be a bell and the call for prayer at 5am. But if you go and talk to the Islamic people from Belfast they tell you that that will not happen. These are intelligent people, many in the top tax bracket and some who may even save your life.
AK: What is the difference between the unionism of the UUP and the unionism of the DUP?
MN: As a journalist for all those years I certainly found the UUP to be more reasonable, to be less radical. There’s a fundamentalism I’ve always found about the DUP, political as well as religious. There’s a fundamental, radical, blinkered, it’s-our-way-or-the-highway approach about them which I can’t live with. It’s not the way I live my life.
AK: So what do you think of Peter Robinson: Is he good for unionism, is he good for the Union?
MN: He may lead the largest single party within unionism but, as we’ve seen from the last election, he no longer speaks for the majority of unionism. I don’t think it’s up to me to make personal comments about Peter Robinson because I have to work with him, and with Jim Allister and with Billy Hutchinson. But I equally have to work with Alasdair McDonnell and Martin McGuinness. This is something that has to be done.
AK: Are there too many unionist parties and, if so, how do you resolve that problem?
MN: Well, the total number of votes rose for unionist parties in May. I said before the poll that I didn’t think it was right to criticize people for fracturing the unionist vote, because if other parties are emerging then surely that is a reflection of the dissatisfaction with the UUP and the DUP: so I’m reflecting on myself and my party as to what extent we are responsible for the fracturing of the unionist vote by not offering what people want and how we fix that?
The second point is that if more people come out on polling day and if they transfer their votes in a PR election that is not a bad thing. One of the biggest problems for unionism since 1998 is the number of people who do not vote.
AK: But surely the logic of your argument about the numbers still not voting and the extra voters who came out in May for a wider choice of pro-Union parties is that there should actually be more vehicles for potential unionist voters?
MN: No, we (the UUP and DUP) have to find out what it is that doesn’t make us attractive enough for those people to come out and vote for us.
AK: How do you do that?
MN: Well, you listen and you do research: and for the first time in quite a while we’ve put a lot of effort into listening to people and into professional research to understand the minds of the pro-Union people. Now, it’s only a start but we had a successful set of elections in May and we are already positioning ourselves in terms of Westminster next year: and that’s founded on having a ground war rather than an ‘air’ war and having teams of people going out and engaging and listening. Not talking. Listening to people.
AK: And what have the people been saying to you?
MN: They have identified and acknowledged and appreciate the stability that has come to the party. Any political party can be stable and then in a blink of an eye it’s “events, dear boy, events”! But it’s not as if the stability we have achieved has come along accidentally: we’ve worked very, very hard to get a stability into the party. From that we’ve been able to address the narrative that we are a party in terminal, irreversible decline and none of our critics can maintain that narrative after the 22 May results.
AK: But what do you say to those critics who maintain that you have halted the decline and made a little progress by, on issues like parades and flags, shifting the party back towards its more ‘traditional roots’—roots that David Trimble left behind in the late 1990s.
MN: I go back to my test of fairness: and the European Convention says that we have the right to assemble, to walk, to march or whatever verb you want to use. Clearly it is not an absolute right and there are balances in there: but I don’t think that the balances are right at the moment and it seems to me that the Parades Commission is reacting primarily to the threat of violence from those who are against certain parades. And also, is the Parades Commission actually about being a social engineer and changing behaviours?
AK: But what’s the difference between that position and the DUP or even TUV position?
MN: You’re trying to probe me about differences, but if we all agree that two and two equals four what do you want me to do to differentiate myself from the DUP? If it is right and it is fair then it is right and it is fair and if the DUP and TUV and even Sinn Fein agree that it is right and fair actually that’s quite a good thing.
AK: But doesn’t that make it more difficult for the non-voters who would listen to that answer and argue “there’s no difference between the UUP and DUP on issues like this so why don’t they just merge”?
MN: I don’t see that at all. I don’t even get that. There is obviously a group of people who would like to see a single unionist party and that’s not going to happen. There’s another group of people who would walk away from politics if it did happen. And then there’s another group of people who say let’s have unionist cooperation when it is the right and fair thing to do; and that is the camp that I find myself in.
AK: Do you think that genuine, credible power-sharing is possible in Northern Ireland?
MN: Yes. I think in the early days there was bad faith and there was the constructive ambiguity (although it seemed to me that David Trimble never really got the opportunity to take the devolution project down the runway to proper takeoff). But if you look at the DUP, they were formed as an opposition and then after forty years found themselves suddenly in power.
And what have they done with that power except hold it? Have they actually delivered on anything? People who until recently were saying that they wouldn’t give the UUP a second thought are now saying that they will give us a second thought because they want progress to be made. People are coming up to me and saying of our stability and recovery—“well done, really pleased to see it. I’m coming back to vote Ulster Unionist.”
AK: So what do you say to those who wonder why you choose to stay in an Executive with a DUP which you don’t think is serious about delivery?
MN: In some ways it does make it much more difficult for us to stay in. But is it the right thing, or the fair thing for the people of Northern Ireland?—and that is always an open question. But the fundamental issue for me is the difference between a formal, funded, official opposition and voluntarily walking out of the Executive; and to me there is a huge difference between the two.
Indeed, up until December 2012 (when the flag decision was taken in Belfast) the party leaders had made quite surprising progress in recognizing that there was nothing in it for a party which voluntarily gave up their seat/seats in the Executive and what might be done for them. At the moment the UUP has certain rights when it comes to speaking times etc, but we would lose those if we just walked out. So while there was a recognition around the table that you couldn’t just give half of the speaking rights to a party outside the Executive, nor could they be expected to settle for substantially reduced rights. So we were actively looking at what might be the compromise position, including ‘supply days,’ when the opposition gets to pick the issues for debate. What resources could be ringfenced for a party which was in ‘unofficial’ opposition to help it develop alternative policies? Unfortunately, after the flags decision those normal party meetings about the regularizing of politics stopped and have not been resumed.
AK: Does there come a moment when you just say “the UUP has had enough of this Executive. We’re gone, we’ve nothing to gain by staying in”?
MN: But you’re couching it in terms of electoral advantage….
AK: But surely all parties have to calculate in terms of electoral advantage?
MN: But what about the 40% who don’t vote? Maybe they would appreciate a party that genuinely does what it commits to—which is to do the right thing for Northern Ireland and that is measured in whether a decision is a fair decision or not. You seem to be suggesting that we leave the Executive for electoral advantage, but I’m going to reject that because I don’t think that would be the right thing to do. But if to step away is the right thing to do to get us closer to normal politics and deliver on the promises that we made sixteen years ago, then that’s a different proposition.
We promised people sixteen years ago an end to violence, which has largely been delivered; we also promised a peace dividend—but I think if you went a mile from Stormont and asked people if they had got that, the answer would be a resounding no; and the third thing we promised them was better politics than direct rule, and again a significant number of people would say that we haven’t delivered. So the three boxes haven’t been ticked properly. So the challenge is how to change that and deliver on that?
If you are going to talk about unofficial opposition and the UUP walks out on its own, what’s the proposition we are offering people for next time, if you want to talk about electorally? Surely we would have to be doing this in conjunction with the SDLP: because I would like to see an official opposition, I think that would be the next step towards normalizing politics and I think it would be a mature recognition that the institutions are solid enough to withstand another significant step forward. But it needs to be cross-community because we are not going back to majoritarian government.
AK: Have you talked to the SDLP about this?
MN: Yes, we have had conversations with the SDLP about these issues—and I don’t want to overegg the pudding because they weren’t in any great detail—and I think, frankly, the Haass process and party leaders stuff that followed has not helped to create that space recently. But I think that we should be having that conversation and I hope they feel the same way about us. I would love to see a stronger SDLP, as I would love to see a stronger UUP.
But what I’m also encouraging unionists to think about is what they are going to do when the day comes—and it might be sooner rather than later—when you look at the benches downstairs and there isn’t a single member of Sinn Fein who was in the IRA or had any connection with the IRA. So in a few years it will just be the younger ones, who have no blood on their hands and are only there because they have a mandate. And has unionism thought through what it is going to do when that day arrives?
AK: How do you think unionism would cope if Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party in the 2016 Assembly election? For example if you were the leader of the largest unionist party, or if the DUP refused to take the role, would you serve as deputy First Minister to a Sinn Fein First Minister?
MN: There are a lot of hypotheticals in there, but unionism does need to have a conversation about that and I have tried to start it in my own party and it’s best being discussed quietly at grassroots level. What do we do when we’ve moved sufficiently on from the ceasefires and that the people sitting in the council chambers and Assembly are there only because they have a mandate and they have no past associated with the Troubles?
It is a big question. Working with the SDLP is also a big question because I do want to see a stronger SDLP. But there has been no particular thought given to what we mean by an unofficial opposition: is it the UUP alone, or the UUP and SDLP, or the UUP and Alliance, or the UUP/SDLP/Alliance, or the UUP and others outside the SDLP and Alliance? All that needs to be dealt with.
AK: How likely is that?
MN: There is no indication at this stage that there will be an opposition, official or otherwise, in time for the 2016 elections. But we will continue to make the argument for it as a mature reflection that the institutions are here to stay and that it’s a bold next step towards normalizing politics within the confines that normal politics here will involve a cross-community government.
AK: You have talked before about the recovery of the UUP and the normalizing of politics taking two electoral cycles. That will take us to the Assembly election of 2021—but do you think that we will have opposition even at that point?
MN: That’s very difficult to answer. What happens, for example, if the Conservatives don’t have a majority after the next election and require DUP support—what’s the dynamic there going to be? Official opposition may not come for altruistic reasons, but as part of a wider political expedience deal. Who knows at this point?
AK: Someone told me that he didn’t think that you were a “natural politician.” He also went on to say that you looked uncomfortable with the small talk and the pressing of the flesh. Do you enjoy being a politician?
MN: Look, people are entitled to their opinions, but I enjoy being a politician. I enjoy all of it. I was on UTV for thirteen years so it’s not like it’s something new that people come up to me in Asda and say “how are you doing”? I like the on-the-ground stuff in particular and when I really get something done for someone, particularly when I thought I wouldn’t be able to help—on occasions like that you couldn’t annoy me with anything! But I really do enjoy all of it.
AK: How has the party changed under your leadership?
MN: Confidence is back. The sense of teamwork is back. We had a successful local government election, but we still took hits and lost good people along the way. But we lost because they played as team players and there was no knocking the tripe out of each other. And even though they lost they came back with their analysis and their plans for continuing to help build the party. People are now playing as a team. That’s the biggest difference in the past couple of years.
AK: Is that because for the first time in a long time the party grassroots actually believe they can win again?
MN: Yes, right at the start of my leadership I deliberately said ‘no quick fix and no big idea’—because we tend to go through them. The last one was UCUNF and if it had been a real political alliance it might have worked, but it would have taken ten to twenty years. But it turned out to be an electoral pact and not a very well managed electoral pact and once it fell in 2010—that was it, walk away.
So my idea was always to say it’s a ten year cycle—assuming the party wants to keep me that long—and that we have a lot to do in that ten years. Know what we need to do and keep doing it. This was electoral cycle one, phase one. We came out with our MEP returned on full quota and 88 councillors rather than the mid-70s that some pollsters were predicting. And that is transformational. It was important to us to demonstrate that we continue to grow.
Objective one was stability. We’ve demonstrated that. Objective two was cut the narrative that we are in terminal decline. We’ve done that. Objective three was growth, and even though I though I thought we mightn’t see it until next year, we saw it in this election. So we are on a progressive, positive path here and to get back into the House of Commons next year is clearly a major objective for us, but not at any cost.
AK: Is there an electoral advantage—and I know you think that parties shouldn’t just be steered by electoral advantage—in reaching an electoral pact or understanding with the DUP to get you back into the House of Commons?
MN: But would that ‘understanding’ be with the DUP necessarily, or could it be with the SDLP?
AK: In what sense with the SDLP?
MN: In the same sense that there could be an understanding with the DUP.
AK: Let me get this clear: are you saying that there could be a pact or understanding with the DUP in one constituency and with the SDLP in another?
MN: What I’m saying is that at the moment our entire focus is on the Ulster Unionist Party and we’ve actually in the last two weeks done a lot of work in terms of discussing and strategizing for ourselves—dare I say for ourselves alone—about the next election for Westminster and the knock-on for the 2016 Assembly election. So we are basically ploughing our own furrow here. But we do so aware that at least one other party wants to talk to us and indeed the DUP did initiate a discussion at staff level more than six months ago and we would expect them to come back now that the elections are over. And if they come back and ask for a conversation we’ll certainly have that conversation, but I don’t commit to more than that. Would there be a conversation to be had with the SDLP? Yes, possibly.
AK: Is the Union safe?
MN: Yes. If you look at the 2011 census just one quarter of all people describe themselves as Irish. Now you think of what effort republicans put in to try and bomb and shoot us into a united Ireland, yet at the end of that, with over three-and-a-half thousand people needlessly killed and 40,000 people injured, only 25% of people say they consider themselves as Irish. My God, the Union is safe!
The difficulty for them is that republicans have accepted what is for them the defeat of their anti-Union position but aren’t so comfortable with the shared future alternative that I would like to see. For example, 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.
AK: How do you think the DUP would respond to that? Do you not think they will play this as “look, Mike Nesbitt wants statues of Michael Collins up at Stormont”!
MN: 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?
AK: So you think that that’s how power-sharing and sharing the future should be addressed. That it’s not about the diminution of one side at the expense of the other, but rather a recognition of each other’s history and past?
MN: Yes. Unionists need to be more confident. What has surprised me since 1998 is that unionism has not managed to get on to the front foot. Not in an aggressive front foot manner, but just to be more confident and saying (of republicans) “well of course you behave in that way, because for thirty-five years you tried to bomb and shoot us into a united Ireland and you failed, so you’re going to try a culture war; you’re going to try something else to promulgate your aspiration.
AK: So is it a failure of unionism to collectively promote a vision of the Union?
MN: Again yes, I would like us to be more confident. I wouldn’t have a difficulty in going to a Sinn Fein conference now and saying “if you don’t like what you hear from me the people to blame are the members of the IRA who blew up my grandfather’s linen business. Because if you hadn’t I wouldn’t be here.”
AK: Did becoming leader so quickly and without the baggage that others had make it easier for you?
MN: I wasn’t thinking of leadership at that point. But my analysis was that the next leader needed ten years and that if I didn’t go in 2012 it would have been too late for me in 2022. But in terms of baggage—yes, I hadn’t built up the enemies, but nor had I established the circle of friends across the party. You have said that I have been “dull and cautious” and that’s probably a fair criticism. But I think that members of the party are now learning to like each other again and look beyond what was separating us. Two years into a ten year plan we have proved that there are possibilities here.