Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Robinson's vision is clear, but what of Mr Nesbitt's?

Unionism is changing as two events in the past few days have proved. The first was Peter Robinson's speech in Dublin defining a future vision for unionism. The second was the election of a new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party who carries with him none of the sectarian baggage of the past.

We are moving into a new era, as Mr Robinson reflected in Dublin and at the opening of the magnificent Titanic centre in Belfast at the weekend.

Change, too, lay at the heart of the election of Mike Nesbitt as UUP leader which he must hope heralds a new beginning for that stricken party rather than the beginning of the end for it.

Both the Democratic and Ulster Unionist parties are now heading in the same direction; away from their narrow sectarian, Orange and Protestant-dominated pasts.

The question is; which will arrive at the new destination first and claim the prize of being a truly pluralist unionist party of the future?

"Unionism must reach far beyond its traditional base if it is to maximise its potential. That means forming a pro-union consensus...." was the First Minister's message in Dublin last week, a far cry indeed from old-style Paisleyism upon which the DUP was founded.

The choice of Mike Nesbitt as UUP leader sends out no less a message. How far from the image of traditional unionism could the UUP stray than to appoint someone with no Orange regalia in his wardrobe and such a short apprenticeship in politics? By any standard, this is a brave departure.

Just as Peter Robinson is emitting moderating signals, Mike Nesbitt is doing the same. A century after the signing of the Ulster Covenant we are witnessing the metamorphism of unionist politics on this island.

Clearly, the fears of unionists and the aspirations of nationalists are not what they were before the Good Friday Agreement of 14 years ago. That must lead to a heart-searching in all parties, including Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Mr Robinson points to opinion polls which suggest that beyond unionism's traditional base in the Protestant community there are many others who wish to remain part of the UK. The belief is growing within the DUP and UUP leadership that not all nationalist voters can be taken at face value.

Scratch the surface and perhaps a surprising number are really closet unionists underneath. That's the theory yet to be proven in an election as has Mike Nesbitt's leadership to be tested also at the polls.

He will need to come off his fence far more than he did in the run-up to the weekend selection conference.

It is surely unusual for a political party to elect a leader who does not show his hand.

Mike Nesbitt rocked few boats which ensured he did not offend any significant section of the delegates whose overwhelming support he attracted. In truth, the leadership contest looked a virtual done deal from the moment Danny Kennedy, the only UUP minister in the Executive, pulled out of the race.

What is in Mike Nesbitt's strategic locker? If he is to revive the fortunes of the UUP, he needs to show to the outside world much more than the measured vagueness of his views to date.

The old guard must give him his head but he also must resist looking over his shoulder at them. That will not be easy given his shallow roots in this old-fashioned and ultra-conservative party machine.

More radical, energetic and youthful members of the party, like John McCallister, also need to be heard challenging the status quo at Stormont and delivering a more pragmatic form of unionism addressing the harsh economic facts of life today.

Mr Nesbitt faces a formidable challenge from the DUP which has already grasped the need for change, is taking every opportunity to paint a more progressive image and is also hoping to attract a new generation into its camp.

Inquiring journalists have opened many doors at Stormont which were closed in the public's face. That is no substitute for proper political scrutiny - a role the UUP should grasp with more enthusiasm.

Until now, Mr Nesbitt's party has been hunting with the hounds and running with the hare on Stormont plateau. The party has won no political kudos for this.

Where to now? Measured vagueness will not do. The new leader needs to set out a clearer vision of where he is taking the UUP. Reforming the party machine may be important but reforming the current undemocratic structures of Stormont is the real task to be faced.

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