Belfast Telegraph

I’ll put an end to DUP talks straight away ...Mike Nesbitt says unionist unity is not an objective

By Liam Clarke

Ulster Unionist leadership contender Mike Nesbitt will immediately break off the current talks with the DUP, and rule out plans for unionist unity, if he wins the party ballot at the weekend.

In the final week of campaigning Mr Nesbitt came off the fence on several issues where he has previously reserved his position.

The high-level talks, revealed in an interview with David McNarry in the Belfast Telegraph, took many MLAs by surprise.

They started a chain of events that ended with Mr McNarry resigning the whip and Tom Elliott’s decision to step down as leader.

Now both his potential successors, Mr Nesbitt and John McCallister, have said they would end the dialogue.

Mr Nesbitt doesn’t rule out discussions with the DUP on particular issues but puts it on the same level as talking to the SDLP.

“The existing talks with the DUP won’t continue,” he said.

“My entire focus is on the internal relationships.

“Is there an issue on which we could be sitting down with the DUP?

“You could very easily say victims, but I would also have to be sitting down with the SDLP to talk about victims.

“We don’t have an armed forces advocate in Northern Ireland. We could talk to the DUP about that, but this is an issue which would cause cross-community support so it might be more important to sit down with the SDLP.”

He ruled out unionist unity as an objective, saying he intended to build up the UUP’s own strength and cohesion as a party.

And he hit out at DUP leader Peter Robinson for not, so far, fulfiling public commitments to integrated education.

“Peter set out his stall over a year ago saying he was going to establish a commission on integrated education.

“So far as I know that commission hasn’t been convened ... we would bring forward a different vision of how to make it happen,” he pledged.

Mr McNarry had revealed that Danny Kennedy, the UUP’s only minister, attended the DUP’s ministerial group, and Mr Robinson praised Mr Elliott and Mr Kennedy for their positive approach.

Mr Nesbitt said that he would review the situation in the two-week recess after he took office.

Meanwhile, his leadership rival Mr McCallister was even more emphatic, saying that he would go into opposition to oppose the DUP.

Mr Nesbitt said that he would be finding “different ways to criticise and support the Executive”.

He said that he would have a “partial reshuffle” straight away after taking over but that this might not involve the ministry, and then a fuller one later on.

“I haven’t even decided who would be minister,” he stated.

“What I could tell you is that if it is me I will reshuffle at least once more before the next Assembly election.

“We have some very talented people in the party’s Assembly group and I want them to get maximum experience between now and the election.”

He signalled that he would give up his own position as vice-chair of the education committee.

Fortune favours the brave, but UUP plays safe

Both candidates for the UUP leadership would have been happy to hold a public debate live on TV, but accepted a ruling from the party leadership not to do so.

As a result, their only debate will be held behind closed doors in a Co Londonderry inn where attendance is expected to be only a fraction of the party’s 2,000 membership.

“It is out of my hands. There is a protocol between the party officers and the candidates that no media should attend,” said Terry Wright, the chairman of the party’s Foyle Association and the organiser of the event.

The time and place is 7.45pm at the Belfray Inn on the Glenshane Road.

“You can wait in the bar and ask the candidates to speak to you,” was the best access that Mr Wright could offer.

Mike Nesbitt, one of the candidates, said that the issue of the debates was put to him and his running mate, John McCallister, two weeks ago.

“Both of us would have been relaxed about a debate. I was relaxed either way” he said.

Meanwhile, Mr McCallister said that he would have preferred an open debate.

According to Mr Nesbitt, the party officers didn’t want a repeat of the 2010 leadership contest between Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea which generated some acrimony.

In fact, the battle increased the party’s profile and Mr Elliott was given unanimous support afterwards. The fact that he later blundered and eventually resigned had nothing to do with the contest.

A cautious determination to play it safe lies behind the decision, but in politics fortune favours the brave.

Instead of wrapping its potential leaders in cotton wool, the UUP needs to give them every opportunity to show the world — and not just the party faithful — that they have something relevant to say.

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