Buoyed by electoral success and the DUP’s electoral woes, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt used his party conference to set out his own brand of liberal unionism.
Addressing a confident and well-attended conference at Shaw’s Bridge in south Belfast, Mr Nesbitt set out a robust line on dealing with Sinn Fein while it is still linked to the IRA.
But perhaps more significantly he used his speech to signal what could be important shifts on gay rights and the party’s approach to issues such as the Irish language.
Mr Nesbitt repeated his call on Sinn Fein to abandon its denial that the IRA even exists and said that the UUP had given “firm, decisive and unambiguous leadership in the face of the latest crisis. As others flip-flopped in and out of Government, we drew a line, and took a clear, resolute, principled stand.”
Referring to the DUP, he added: “If a unionist party reads a report that says (1) The IRA still exists (2) It has access to weapons (3) It is still run by the Army Council and (4) the Army Council oversees Sinn Féin – and then that unionist party concludes: ‘That’s alright then, we’re back into government’, well, fine.
“The cat can lap it up like a bowl of very attractive double cream, but this canary is warning there is something toxic in the air.”
But although savaging the DUP’s approach to Sinn Fein, he said: “I want unionism to find a way to work with nationalism”, and said that unionism needs to “address the fact that some people who cherish the Irish language feel we do not respect them and their love of the language”.
Lambasting Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for the “utter dysfunction at the heart of our government”, he reminded the conference of this year’s High Court judgment against the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).
“And what did one of the OFMDFM ministers do in response? They welcomed the decision! Junior minister Jennifer McCann welcomed the scathing criticism of her department! Jennifer McCann, the ministers are the department! That’s you the judge is criticising!
“You could not make it up. It’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a Franz Kafka novel. A Salvador Dali painting. Surreal, grotesque, monstrous.”
Alluding to Peter Robinson’s former Spad Emma Pengelly, who has been co-opted as the new DUP MLA for South Belfast, he condemned “the special advisors who take a one-off £45,000 of your money for moving from one highly paid job to another.
“Add the way the DUP and Sinn Féin came together a few days ago, to kill off the proposal to limit the number of special advisors and their salaries.
“It says all you need to know about what motivates the parties running our devolved government. The greater good gives way to what’s good for them.”
Outlining a potentially significant shift in his party’s stance on gay marriage, which will come before the Assembly next week for the fifth time in five years, he warned the party: “I shall not labour the point today, but to those of us who cannot bring ourselves to support same-sex marriage, I say this – we are on the wrong side of history. There is a new generation coming and they simply do not understand why there is a problem.”
Many delegates commented on Mr Nesbitt’s remark as they filed out of the hall and afterwards a senior UUP source told the News Letter that although the remark was significant, it does not indicate an imminent shift in the party’s stance, which at present leaves it up to individual MLAs to vote in line with their conscience on the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion.