Mr Nesbitt made his position clear during an interview on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme this morning, although he stressed that he would not be telling UUP voters how they should transfer.
Transfer votes are critical in an Assembly election, with higher preference transfers carrying more weight and thereby often being the difference between a candidate being elected or losing out in the latter stages of a count.
Mr Nesbitt’s comments appear to put more emphasis on the need to change the Stormont Executive – by voting for opposition parties – than it does on voting for the DUP, a governing party, simply because they are unionist.
The DUP and TUV rounded on the UUP leader’s remarks, with Nigel Dodds calling on UUP candidates to state whether they endorsed their leader’s sentiment and Jim Allister saying that he feared that Mr Nesbitt was “losing his way”.
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Mr Nesbitt told the BBC’s Sunday Politics: “In terms of preferences, I’m saying vote Ulster Unionist and then vote for any candidate that you trust will deliver for your community, for your constituency and for this country.”
When asked by interviewer Mark Carruthers if he was not specifically saying that voters should transfer to the SDLP, he said: “Not specifically the SDLP.”
It was put to Mr Nesbitt that if he didn’t urge his voters to transfer to the SDLP then it would look like a bogus offering, rather than standing on the notion of being an alternative government.
Mr Nesbitt said: “Well, I will be standing square behind that notion and I will be transferring from my Ulster Unionist votes to the SDLP.”
When Mr Nesbitt was asked if that meant he would vote Ulster Unionist ‘1’ and then SDLP next, he said: “Yes.”
Explaining why he would not urge UUP voters to transfer to the SDLP, he added: “I think I understand Ulster Unionist voters and they don’t like being told what to do – they don’t even on some occasions like vote management…”
He said that unlike the DUP, who have talked about “holding our noses” while going into government, “I’m offering something different – willingly going into partnership with a party of nationalism because it is the right thing to do and it is the only way to make NI work. And you’ll hear Colum Eastwood say he wants to make NI work.”
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds urged UUP candidates to “speak out” in response to what their leader had said.
The North Belfast MP said: “At last May’s Assembly election the number of votes cast for nationalist parties fell and the number of Assembly seats filled by nationalist MLAs was also reduced.
“There will be many Ulster Unionist Party members who will be dismayed that Mike Nesbitt wishes to reverse that trend through his desire to see nationalist representation in the Assembly increased ahead of other unionists.
“Unfortunately it seems that the Ulster Unionist Party does not even have a settled position on whether it wants to see unionism strengthened. Each Ulster Unionist Party candidate in this election therefore must now speak out and make clear whether their leader’s desire to boost nationalism represents their views.”
The DUP veteran added: “If they choose to remain silent then voters will have no option than to assume they are happy to support candidates who want joint authority with the Republic of Ireland imposed upon Northern Ireland.
“For the DUP’s part we want to see unionism strengthened and advanced. To maximise unionist representation we would encourage voters to support DUP candidates in their constituency in order of preference advised in your area and then to transfer to other pro-Union candidates.”
Meanwhile, TUV leader Jim Allister – who has had a warmer relationship with the UUP than with the DUP for many years – also sharply criticised Mr Nesbitt.
He said: “As a unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, I fear, is losing his way. He got it badly wrong on Brexit – something which many former UUP voters have raised with me on the doors – and now by being, at best, equivocal on voting transfers within the unionist family.
“Giving preferences to nationalists before unionists should not be the business of the leader of a party committed to maintaining the Union.
“He wants an alternative government in Stormont, but is blindly wedded to the Belfast Agreement structure of mandatory coalition which means, even if he won the election, DUP and Sinn Fein would still ‘as of right’ be entitled to be in the government.
“Failing to jettison failed mandatory coalition in favour of that which can provide alternative government, namely voluntary coalition, is a fatal flaw in his approach.
“Happily traditional unionists who hitherto have voted UUP have an emphatic alternative in TUV, which knows where it stands on all these issues.”