I tweeted, late on Monday evening: “I’m going on a hunch here, but I think the UUP will decide to pull out of the Executive in the next few days. Makes sense.”
A number of politicians – including some from the UUP – rang me to tell me that they thought, in the words of one MLA, “that Nesbitt wouldn’t have the balls to do anything requiring courage”.
Well, he’s done it. The decision still needs to be rubber stamped by the UUP executive, but they will be happy to do so.
The UUP has been looking at the option of leaving the Executive for some time now. Nesbitt has complained on a number of occasions about the side-deals and ‘understandings’ reached by the DUP and Sinn Fein, leaving the UUP and other Executive parties on the sidelines.
I suspect he’s also been pretty miffed about the extent to which the DUP and Sinn Fein have briefed against and rubbished DRD Minister Danny Kennedy.
He has a valid point, too – a point he raised during the who-knew-what-and-when row over the On The Runs – about the levels of secrecy and lack of clarity on some key issues. Yes, some nationalists and republicans will mention the fact that the UUP has shared many recent platforms with the PUP and UPRG – both of which have links to loyalist paramilitary groups – but that sort of criticism won’t damage him in the eyes of that increasing number of unionist voters who aren’t happy with the DUP.
I think he’s a little weak about withdrawing from the Executive “to form an opposition and offer people an alternative”. There are no structures of opposition and I doubt if Robinson or McGuinness would be willing to facilitate him at this point. But John McCallister’s Private Member’s Bill on opposition is due to be tabled fairly soon, so it will be interesting to see if the UUP is prepared to back it. He also has to find an answer to the question: “under what circumstances would you be prepared to enter the Executive again?”.
The big question, of course, is what the DUP will do? Years ago I remember David Trimble telling me that it would have been “enormously difficult and probably impossible” for him to have remained in the Executive had the DUP abandoned him there.
Peter Robinson now has the same problem. If he stays in he will find himself under attack from the UUP/TUV/Ukip/PUP and I can’t imagine that Sinn Fein will be prepared to cut him any slack on either welfare or rebooting the Stormont House Agreement. But if he pulls out he will be criticised for not having the courage to stand his ground.
My instinct is that the DUP will withdraw, probably fairly soon. That will collapse the Executive, forcing suspension, an early election or full-blooded direct rule.
I’m not sure the DUP wants an election at this point, though, because it looks weak and Robinson doesn’t have the natural authority he had a year ago. With three increasingly good election results under his belt (which is what he promised when he became leader) Nesbitt is in bullish form. For the first time in a very long time the UUP is setting the political agenda.
More important, the DUP is beginning to take him seriously.