Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt 'in denial' over his SDLP vote transfer call: DUP

By Noel McAdam

The DUP has poured scorn on Mike Nesbitt's defence of his controversial decision to transfer his vote to the SDLP in the Assembly election.

Edwin Poots called the former Ulster Unionist leader a "bad loser", while Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP argued he was "attempting to cover his tracks".

In his first interview since standing down as party leader, Mr Nesbitt blamed DUP chief Arlene Foster's attack on Sinn Fein as "crocodiles who keep coming back for more" for energising the republican vote.

He said his decision to give a second preference vote to a nationalist in East Belfast was "a small gesture" after being in Opposition at Stormont with the SDLP for several months.

But there was support for Mr Nesbitt from Ross Hussey, who stood down as a UUP MLA before the election.

"I can see where Mike was coming from when he commented on the DUP candidates in his area, one of whom was Robin Newton, who Mike had called upon to step down following his controversial decision to allow Arlene Foster to make a statement as First Minister when the conjoint nature of the office of OFMDFM would not permit such a statement," he said.

"It was not going to be possible for him to endorse a DUP candidate.

"Mike did what many did not expect - he actually said what he thought.

"I could not endorse the DUP candidate in my constituency because of the entire RHI fiasco and the other issues such as Red Sky and Nama, where the DUP acted shamelessly.

"I endorsed the UUP candidate and then the TUV candidate, who I knew personally and whom I had respect for.

"In my part of the world (West Tyrone) you would prefer a SDLP candidate to Sinn Fein, and whilst the Shinners haven't the hope of a preference, the SDLP would."

In his interview, Mr Nesbitt claimed the reaction to it was largely "positive", and blamed his party's losses on Mrs Foster.

"That crocodile comment really did serve as a lightning rod that incredibly energised nationalists and republicans," Mr Nesbitt argued.

"That was the real quote of the election and the real consequence was the result that put Sinn Fein just a seat behind the DUP.

"I did not energise a single one of those additional voters." Mr Nesbitt also accused the DUP of "promoting a unionism of domination" that is a "shortcut to a united Ireland", and argued a "moderate way forward" involving his party and the SDLP was his only vision. "I've got nothing else to offer," he said.

Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey claimed Mr Nesbitt was "bitter" and "sore", and his comments had cost unionism seats.

"In my own constituency, unionists lost a seat because of Mike Nesbitt's call in terms of transferring to the SDLP, which for the first time won a seat, putting Pat Catney in ahead of my own colleague Brenda Hale.

"There is immediately evidence that Mike Nesbitt's comments cost seats.

"Mike is trying to cover his tracks because the judgment on his leadership from the unionist electorate has not been a good one.

"The irony is that if Mike looks when he co-operated with the DUP his vote share went up."

Wallace Thompson, a former adviser to DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, said: "When he announced his resignation, Mr Nesbitt said he took responsibility, but now he seems to be pointing the finger at everyone else.

"But it seems to be generally believed that his 'vote SDLP second' announcement did a lot of damage. And yet he seems to be in denial."

Mr Nesbitt refused to comment on criticism of his leadership from UUP colleagues, including ex-Upper Bann MLAs Jo-Anne Dobson and Samuel Gardiner.

Mr Nesbitt, who is due to hand over the leadership early next month after more than five years at the helm, said he did not want to wash the party's "dirty linen in public", or to set up "hostages to fortune" for his successor as Ulster Unionist leader.

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