‘Is this just fantasy, caught in a landslide, no time for reality?:’ so sang Freddie Mercury and now the Ulster Unionists it seems; as they opt for a Freddie tribute singer to win back David Trimble’s old seat in Upper Bann and presenter-come-politician, Mike Nesbitt to exact revenge on the family Robinson in Strangford at the forthcoming Westminster elections. One suspects that the ghosts of Lords Craigavon and Brookeborough are rattling around their ancestral homes at the thought of an Ulster Unionist candidate called as ‘Flash Harry’ and that war veteran MP’s like the late Major Chichester-Clarke is turning in his grave at the prospect of a media ‘luvvie’ candidate whose battle honours include presenting a programme called ‘Home Sweet Home!’
Welcome to ‘New Unionism’ keen to woo unionists with a whopping great dollop of ‘X’ factor populism. Well, that’s the theory. Who would have thought that Reg Empey and Michael Mc Gimpsey would have been behind a plan to ‘sex-up’ Northern politics? Add into the mix ‘One small step’ campaigner and ex Rugby international Trevor Ringland and the Ulster Unionists are starting to look like a ‘rainbow’ coalition of ‘high and low’ Church going, well-meaning and middle class do-gooders- which is a far cry from their firebrand ways of trampling down the highways and by-ways of Northern Ireland draped in Orange and Black sashes.
But is all as it seems? Every time moderate unionism lurches towards the centre- the echo of the fife and drum beats a retreat to the Brigadoon of ‘unionist’ unity; which in reality masks an underlying, unaddressed and unspoken addiction to sectarianism. People like Ringland and Nesbitt are not sectarian but unless they can demonstrate that they can influence unionism towards a pluralist and more inclusive agenda then they will be no more than token gestures of goodwill and plausible sound-bites.
The omens are not hopeful. Ringland is a strong advocate of integrated education- the much vaunted middle class interpretation of what inclusiveness and pluralism is all about. The arrogance of this position is nauseating to the vast majority of Catholics who send their children to faith based schools because a) its their right; b) the quality of the education and c) the catholic ethos of good citizenship and community.
The media attitude to ‘celebrity candidates’ in the forthcoming elections will be an important litmus test of their impartiality. One leading broadcast journalist speaking to me last Friday said that ‘Nesbitt was one of their own’ and that it would seem odd to be ‘harrying him in an interview’. If that sentiment is to prevail the ‘fourth estate’ will be seriously damaged. Mike Nesbitt has a lot to prove and as a DUP MLA said; ‘he may be good on TV but what about planning, health-care, roads and education?’- The prospect of an easy win and prestige of being an MP does not of itself merit political reward. The public often react favourably to new faces in politics and certainly those who work in media are at an advantage but the public are also prone to tire of those same faces just as quickly. Often celebrity candidates once elected get bored with the mundane aspects of dealing with blocked drains and cow sucker premiums.
The pre –election media ‘love in’ with the celebrity Fine Gael and ex RTE candidate George Lee bordered on the obscene. To watch his Camelot collapse after nine months was actually enjoyable and as one popular Facebook page said ‘don’t let the Dail door hit you on the ass as you leave, George!’
Sometimes for some celebrity candidates the grass looks greener from benches of parliament. Those who sit on those benches know different. The path from celebrity candidate to election and even defeat is well trodden as the fickle electorate are always looking for the next political ‘Pop idol’. From the odious Kilroy-Silk to the ridiculous Rusty Lee; from the pious Martin Bell to the attention seeking Esther Rantzen; the star factor of being a campaigner has its attractions but the reality of being one of several hundred political others soon sweeps away any enthusiasm as the reality of back-bench life takes a grip.
In fairness to the Ulster Unionists at least they are encouraging credible new faces onto their electoral ticket and that should resonate with the electorate; whether those voters come from Alliance, the DUP or the so called ‘stay at home gardening prods’ remains to be seen but Sir Reg like Queen; is hoping to ‘Rock you’- come the elections!