So the Ulster Unionists have thrown all their Easter eggs into the basket of their best-looking bunny – Mike Nesbitt. This is the fifteenth leader of the Ulster Unionist party since their foundation. Success for an Ulster Unionist leader once meant doing nothing- just being unionist was enough. Well being a unionist, a landowner and an Orangeman would usually do the trick. Yet longevity for a successful leadership was based on maintaining the status quo. Radicalism within Ulster Unionism rarely stretched beyond visiting a bunch of compliant nuns or taking a stroll on a Sunday. Having a posh sounding name usually helped and even better if you had a big house.
Of course the star performer was Carson, the lion of all unionists. So just how did the Ulster Unionists fall from dizzy heights of the leadership of Sir Edward Carson, the bête noir of nationalism and persecutor of Oscar Wilde to a political Johnny come lately and one time news presenter Mike Nesbitt?
Not to put too fine a point on it – they have run out of options.
The Ulster Unionists have been in terminal decline since the 1960’s. Their failure to reform, embrace change and their inability to stick with change once they embarked on it, meant that what started as an internal bleed has led to a haemorrhage.
In the past political patronage, an annual trip to the field to mix with the ordinary five-eighths and more than a fair dollop of sectarian ranting would have been enough to keep the loyalist natives in line. Successive Ulster Unionists took their mandate for granted.
Since the 1960’s the Ulster Unionists have devoured their leaders with an appetite that would have rivalled the late King of Tonga. Reformers, albeit late to the starting block, such as O’ Neill, Faulkner and Trimble were continually fighting rear-guard actions within their own party. The latter was by a long shot the bravest and most reforming leader of that party since its inception.
Unfortunately poor communication skills and constant internal wrangling hamstrung him. David Trimble deserves much credit for doing all the heavy lifting on the unionist side when it came to responding to the IRA ceasefires. However, he always came across angst driven like some kind of political Jesus in Gethsemane – afraid or struggling to accept his destiny.
Despite constant bickering, internal warfare, mistrust of the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s failure to live up to their commitments, Trimble did eventually lead unionism to the promised land of Stormont Mark III and a secure Union within the United Kingdom. Under the circumstances its remarkable that Trimble actually survived ten years in leadership. His successor, the affable Sir Reg Empey, endured only half that time and the straight talking but luckless farmer from Fermanagh, Tom Elliott cut his leadership reign to half that again. There would appear to be more longevity and security in Graham Norton’s red story chair than in the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party.
So now the unionist grandees have opted for the new boy on the bloc – Mike Nesbitt to turn their fortunes around. Politically speaking Nesbitt is a novice and nothing he has said to date has been memorable for the right reasons. He is clearly intelligent but modern politics requires a degree in deviousness and copious amounts of nous and street sense. Suggesting that he would go poor for a day was not the most auspicious of starts. There is a problem for news presenters moving from political interrogator to the interrogated and it’s about perceived depth. Presenters can move easily from one question to the next without having to prove any logic or connectivity- they are all about entertainment. Nolan is by far the best and worst exponent of this type of interview. Politicians can’t be seen to flip-flop so easily. Firing questions is also much easier than answering them.
Nesbitt comes across as sincere but naive and that is a death knell for an aspiring politician. He needs to take wise counsel over the summer and in the intervening period needs to listen and learn a lot more about the stock and trade of politicking.
Notwithstanding his newness, Nesbitt does deserve a chance to prove his worth but he needs to get a set of savvy new advisors. There is no point having people around who wish the world was different or who are motivated by the settling of old scores. Nesbitt needs to be bold but his party may need to be braver.