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Mike Nesbitt's vision to be skewed by the realities of politics here

By Alex Kane

Published 11/02/2016

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt
Nesbitt at launch of the party’s Our Vision For You... The Voter document at Stormont
A masked and armed IRA man

Mike Nesbitt fired the opening salvo in the Assembly election campaign this week. But the Ulster Unionist leader is stronger on 'belief' and 'vision' than he is on the detail... and there is still the small matter of the IRA army council to be factored in.

On Monday morning, almost three months before the Assembly election, the UUP fired the opening salvo of its campaign: a document entitled Our Vision For You... The Voter.

This is an important election for the party, probably the most important one since the first Assembly vote in 1998.

It has 13 MLAs at the moment and Mike Nesbitt is desperate to build on the momentum that has been gathering since the council and general elections in 2014/15.

He is going to have to do extraordinarily well, though, because most of what is being offered in the document seems - to me anyway - dependent upon the UUP emerging as the lead party of unionism.

It's all very well to write about creating an "era of belief - that requires a Stormont that makes decisions; that requires parties who put the country above petty party political self-interest; that requires politicians who understand the importance of the greater good. You deserve - and desire - better. I know I can lead a team that will deliver".

But the UUP will not be governing on its own. If it's the lead party, it will need the nod of approval from Sinn Fein for almost everything. If it isn't the lead party, then it has to get four other parties to sign up to the vision and belief set out in this document, as well as getting them to agree the contents of a raft of policy papers the UUP will be publishing over the next few weeks.

In other words, whatever the election outcome, the UUP will be forced to settle for a heavily watered-down version of its policies (as will the other parties involved in the Programme for Government negotiations), or else settle for five years in Opposition.

I'm not persuaded by its criticism of the DUP/Sinn Fein axis and the "stability" of the Executive. The UUP has complained loudly and persistently about being ignored by the DUP and Sinn Fein since May 2007 (which it was); it has criticised many of the decisions made by those parties; it has said that the Executive is "not representative", and yet it managed to stay in the Executive between May 2007 and August 2015.

It could have left at any time. It didn't have to stay in there and take the jibes and sneers. And when it did leave, it was primarily over the relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA rather than on the entirely separate issues of a dysfunctional Executive and serial non-delivery.

And therein lies another problem for the party in terms of whether it will return to the Executive.

Nesbitt says: "That will depend on being able to answer two questions positively. First, do we believe that we have come up with an effective, progressive Programme for Government? And, second, have we a sense that there is a collective political will to deliver it? If the answer to either question is 'no', we will not be going into government."

Fair enough, but what about Sinn Fein's relationship with the IRA and the ongoing existence of the IRA army council?

Those were the questions that vexed the UUP so much a few months ago that it left the Executive, suggesting that it wouldn't return until they had been answered. What if they're not answered, let alone answered to Mr Nesbitt's satisfaction?

I don't think it has thought through the section on identity, either: "Our vision is for all our people. It will not be limited by the old, binary notions that try to dictate that you must be labelled Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist, Protestant or Catholic."

That doesn't make sense from a party that identifies itself as Ulster Unionist.

It doesn't make sense when 98 of the 108 MLAs and their parties have very clearly identified themselves as unionist and nationalist.

It doesn't make sense when we know that the fault-line in the Executive - as it was when the UUP's David Trimble was First Minister - remains the same: a clash between two blocs who disagree on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

Indeed, the UUP's document even admits that many non-unionists cannot say the words "Northern Ireland". That isn't going to change on May 6, or any time afterwards.

Does this document put clear blue water between the UUP and DUP? Well, it doesn't explain why the UUP chose to stay in an Executive that it has been describing as dysfunctional since the end of 2007. It doesn't explain why, for all the criticism of the DUP, it has been involved with pacts, forums, panels and commissions with the DUP.

It doesn't explain how it will work better with Sinn Fein than the DUP has been able to work with republicans.

It doesn't explain how it will deal with Sinn Fein if UUP suspicions remain about the IRA and the army council. It doesn't explain how to remove the veto that Sinn Fein has exercised (as has the DUP, too) since 2007.

It doesn't explain how it will deliver socio-economic polices which the SDLP and Sinn Fein oppose.

Put bluntly, it doesn't explain how it will make the Executive "fit for purpose". Vision is one thing: hard-headed realities are entirely different.

Nesbitt has certainly steadied the UUP and instilled a much-needed sense of discipline.

The party isn't as gaffe-prone as it once was and has had three fairly good elections under his leadership. The DUP, on the other hand, has had 13 years as top dog, yet still hasn't solved the "relationship problem" between it and Sinn Fein.

So, this is going to be a huge challenge for Nesbitt. The UUP has 13 seats and needs to win 19 more to take it to the 32 required to eclipse the DUP, as well as ensuring that it has enough to keep Sinn Fein out of the First Minister's office.

That is an enormous task, not least because about 15 of those seats will have to be taken from the DUP's present tally of 38.

It took the DUP three elections - 2003, 2007 and 2011 - to shift from 20 to 38.

In other words, if Nesbitt is to have a credible chance of delivering even a watered-down version of the vision, he needs to do in one election what the DUP did in three.

So, maybe the enormity of the electoral task - which he clearly recognises - is reflected in the oddly bold Pollyanna approach of the vision document.

There is a mood of discontent and disengagement out there and he is trying to tap into it.

A series of "unexpected" election results (the polls didn't detect most of them until too late) around the world in the past four years suggests that surprises are possible. It happened with David Cameron last May.

Nesbitt is banking on springing just such a surprise this May.

And he still has three months to address questions raised by commentators and political opponents.

Belfast Telegraph

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