Belfast Telegraph

Will Mike and Lynda be UUP winning move?

By Gail Walker

After years of wrong turnings, blind alleys, visits to the hall of mirrors, it could be that the Ulster Unionists are about to stumble in the right direction.

The withdrawal of Danny Kennedy from the UUP leadership race has established Mike Nesbitt as favourite to take over the helm of a party that has seemed to be drifting helplessly and haplessly towards oblivion or, at best, irrelevance.

If they do elect Nesbitt, it could be the best thing the UUP has done in years.

Regardless of his politics or his policies, the truth is Mike Nesbitt fits. He looks like a contemporary politician, not some throwback to the 1970s (or in some sadder cases to the 1950s).

As much as we deny it, we expect our politicians to be media savvy. And, as demonstrated by the press conference launching his leadership bid, Nesbitt has that in spades (perhaps, even a bit too much).

We expect them to talk the talk of engagement, inclusiveness yadda yadda yadda, but it's also hard to imagine Nesbitt impaling his leadership on such a trivial issue as attending a GAA match or working himself into a corner over a Gay Pride march.

True, he only has a year's experience at being an elected representative. But that's not necessarily a bad thing and it's not unique either. Look at the Prime Minister. Look at the Deputy PM. Then look where all those grey old men with oodles of experience got the UUP.

Nesbitt looks like a modern - albeit rather successful - Ulster man. Representing Strangford, he comes from that ever expanding east coast/greater Belfast area. He is man of the commuter belt - from the nicely trimmed hair to the trendy stainless steel glasses; someone who is at home with the contemporary world of mobiles, iPads and the internet. (That, of course, may or may not be true but, in politics, perception is everything).

In other words, he is like the thousands of unionist voters from the suburbs of east and south Belfast, the Bangor line, the M1 to the Lagan Valley, who found a warm welcome in the competent, professional and managerial arms of Robinson's DUP. Voters the UUP will have to win back if they are to survive.

And, of course, it would be ridiculous to ignore the fact that people already think they know Mike Nesbitt.

He was that nice man who used to read the news on the UTV. And, naturally, they also think they know the woman who used to present the news with him, his wife Lynda Bryans.

Yes, I know that we are not supposed to confuse the personal and the political these days, but Lynda is a decided plus.

How many other of our politicians' wives can you put a face to, let alone a name?

Yet many, women especially, will feel a strong connection to Lynda. They will have been moved by her talking frankly about her battle with depression.

They'll have felt for her, too, when she parted company from UTV amid rumours of ageism and shortly after being temporarily hoofed off the air due to alleged 'conflict of interest' when her husband first stood for election.

And they'll have sympathised when some newspapers dredged up stories about their private life, yet somehow contrived to make it look as though Lynda was on trial. Through it all, she remained dignified and characteristically unflappable.

And, they'll think, if Lynda loves Mike, well, he must have quite a lot going for him.

While she may not be the traditional 'tea and buns' political wife, women like and trust her.

Attractive, intelligent and warm, she represents modern, aspirational Ulster, and that can only be a good thing.

Like it or not, Northern Ireland - socially, politically, culturally - is changing. It isn't enough to bring in some tired 'old hand' who will stick to the tired old verities.

The 'same old same old' will not work for the UUP. It's time to embrace the way we are, not the way we were.

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