In last week’s column I suggested that Mike Nesbitt had to give a big speech, one that created a buzz which would last longer than the lunchtime queue: a speech that would have a wow! factor and persuade people that a vote for the UUP wasn’t a wasted vote.
OK, it was a reasonably well-delivered speech, but it was mostly a retread of stuff he has already said. The idea of a ‘new’ covenant was a year too late and the new ‘commitments card’ has been ripped off from Tony Blair in 1997. He laid into the DUP and Sinn Fein for ‘irresponsible’ government, yet gave no indication that he would abandon either the Executive or the Unionist Forum.
The Trauma Centre, which he billed as an ‘alternative’ to the Maze peace and reconciliation project isn’t, in fact, an alternative at all. It is something entirely different. Has it been properly costed and thought through? Has he taken advice from the world experts on this subject? Did he take on board the recommendations of the 2007 Bamford Review into mental health: indeed, did he talk to former health minister Michael McGimpsey about it?
It just sounded terribly flimsy, back-of-the-envelope stuff – searching for something that would grab a headline. Yes, there is a lot of work to be done in the area (unpublished stats from the Victims’ Service indicates that mental health dwarfs all other needs of victims) and what he announced on Saturday should, at the very least, have been accompanied by a report and detailed analysis which could have been given to the media after the speech.
It was a well-organised conference – with numbers up on last year – but it didn’t create the sort of attention that goes much beyond the conference hall. There wasn’t a great deal for the general public to latch onto. The UUP did look and sound more united, but so what? There is no evidence that they pose an electoral threat to the DUP, a party which has had a horrible nine months. Jim Nicholson will hold his Euro seat next May, but the poll figures will need to shift much higher than the present 11 per cent if the party is to make an impact at the local council elections as well.
Meanwhile, Peter Robinson made two very significant speeches on Thursday and Friday. He’s back to thinking about his legacy again, a clear sign that his post-political career remains on his mind. Despite what he’s said since he came back from America I still believe that he won’t be leader for much longer. My original prediction was that he had a gap between the end of the Haass talks in December and the Euro/council results in May 2014 and I’m not inclined to shift from that. Good results allow him to leave on a high: bad results will see the knives out.
Anyway, back to the speeches. They were thoughtful and interesting, but the 64,000 dollar question is whether he will turn rhetoric into reality. Back in January he got really spooked by what was happening on the streets and returned to his own circling the wagons comfort zone, the very thing he was warning others not to do on Thursday.
It’s worth remembering that that reaction – manifested in the creation of the Unionist Forum – followed two similarly ‘thoughtful and interesting’ speeches in September and December 2012. Will the same thing happen if he comes under pressure in the run-up to Christmas? Some loyalists/unionists believe that he buckled on the Maze because of parades, protests, riots, social media criticism and the numbers signing an anti-Maze petition: so, note to Nesbitt, don’t kid yourself that it was merely ‘brains not brawn’ that delivered the u-turn!
Robinson was, broadly speaking, on the right path with the speeches, particularly this section: “Some even go on about unionist culture being eroded but they have no strategy to tip the scales in the other direction. Unionists are the purveyors of unionist culture. Nobody can take our culture away from us. It’s within us. It’s our values. It’s our art and music. It’s our beliefs. It’s our history. It’s how we express ourselves. It’s our way of life. Outsiders might try – and from time to time succeed – in limiting our cultural expression in a specific place or manner but they have no power to stop us increasing our expression in other ways. Such a nationalist strategy doesn’t make me feel culturally diminished. It just makes me angry. Angry that people cannot respect and tolerate diversity. But that anger should be channelled into overcoming such intolerance.”
I wouldn’t disagree with a word of that. I have argued for years that unionism needs to learn to think strategically (another phrase he used) and avoid the elephant traps that others set for it. Actually, there’s an ambulance-chasing dimension to unionism, a tendency to follow to the scene of someone else’s accident rather than stay on their own road and reach their own destination. And Robinson, as leader of the largest unionist party must, like Trimble before him, set out the political and electoral realities for unionism and promote a confident, persuasive, comfortable agenda. So I hope that’s what he is doing: and not trying to steal a march on the UUP and NI21 by playing the moderate, pluralist card in the run-up to the election.
There are a lot of unresolved questions for unionists, not least how they define themselves and promote their beliefs to best advantage. Trimble addressed those questions between 1995-2003 and got destroyed by the DUP. Robinson is now obliged to address them, this time from a position of strength. The ultimate test for him as a leader and as a politician (and it will also determine history’s judgment on his legacy) will be whether he has the courage to follow through with the conclusions he has – rightly in my opinion – drawn.