Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt speaks to News Letter columnist Alex Kane about his entry into politics, the possibility of quitting the Stormont Executive and the future of the Union.
Alex Kane: When you got involved in politics in 2009/10 it was at the time of the UCUNF electoral pact between the UUP and the Conservatives. Did that broader pan-UK vehicle, rather than a narrower unionist vehicle, make it easier for you to get involved?
Mike Nesbitt: 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 normalise politics.
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 woolly 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 4,000, maybe 8,000, Muslims here and they do not have one appropriate place of worship ... Is it too much to say that that number of people should have one appropriate place of worship? I don’t think so. 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.
AK: What is the difference between the unionism of the UUP and that 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: 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 criticise 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.
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.
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?
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.
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. 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: 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.
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 per cent 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. 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 16 years ago, then that’s a different proposition...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 normalising 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.
AK: Is there an 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 UUP and we’ve actually in the last two weeks done a lot of work in terms of discussing and strategising 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 ... 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 a 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 3,500 people needlessly killed and 40,000 people injured, only 25 per cent of people say they consider themselves as Irish ... 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: 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 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.