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Mike Nesbitt to hail move into opposition as his revived UUP meets for conference

By Liam Clarke

Published 24/10/2015

Mike Nesbitt
Mike Nesbitt

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt will use his conference speech today to celebrate going into opposition and formulate plans for it.

To that end, his party has agreed to a major survey of its membership by Professor Jon Tonge, who carried out a similar study of the DUP two years ago.

Last night Mr Nesbitt told the Belfast Telegraph: "We agreed to this survey quite a while ago and it will be starting soon."

The plan is to complete it within a year, and Mr Nesbitt will write to all members asking them to participate.

Turning to today's speech, Mr Nesbitt said: "I am going to call for a mental health champion like the champions for older people or younger people.

"I have been listening to people suffering from poor mental health and the charities about this."

Mr Nesbitt explained: "I am not talking about a big commission.

"I would have thought £200,000 a year would have been more than adequate.

"You would have the champion, maybe a secretary and that is it. We need to have someone actively campaigning, looking at legislation, lobbying the trusts and the board as appropriate."

The overarching theme will be "this is not as good as it gets".

Mr Nesbitt will lambast the record of the DUP and Sinn Fein in Government.

"Seventeen years on from the Good Friday Agreement this is not where people hoped to be.

"I will be setting out a vision for where I think it should be and some of the steps to get there.

"We will be celebrating our decision to pull out of the Executive and we will commit to publishing an alternative Programme for Government."

Professor Tonge addressed a closed session of the UUP conference last night, showing them a presentation.

It is based on his study of the DUP and questionnaire of 1,810 voters which he carried out after this year's election. He has now separated those who voted UUP.

"There are signs that the UUP is reviving but they can't afford to be complacent" he said.

And he added: "Mike Nesbitt probably took over the leadership at a good time (March 2012).

"The party was as low as it could go, though still with a considerable membership, and the DUP has arguably reached its electoral high water mark with 38 seats in the Assembly. There is a feeling that the worst is over and they are beginning to pick up again.

"They are getting better organised as well, but they can't get carried away. The UUP is now taking some stances that would have been the DUP's in the past. Coming out of the Executive, not being happy with the recent report in terms of the Provisional IRA and the relationship with Sinn Fein - that would have been the DUP's playbook a few years back. It was obvious that Peter Robinson wanted to go back into the Executive but Mike Nesbitt stayed out."

He found both differences and similarities between the two parties. He believes the UUP, whose organisation was once "chaotic", was imitating the DUP's disciplined approach.

"That's the sincerest form of flattery," Professor Tonge observed.

His research shows the UUP as more liberal on social issues, like same-sex marriage. On abortion it is more or less split down the middle - 43% want it legalised, 41% don't. This year Danny Kinahan publicly supported the issue and still won the South Antrim Westminster seat off the DUP's Rev Willie McCrea.

Both parties are similarly opposed to the Parades Commission - only 18% of UUP members felt it was doing "a good job".

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