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UUP leader Mike Nesbitt is taking his biggest gamble yet

Removing the UUP from the Executive will be the biggest gamble Mike Nesbitt has taken. Alex Kane on the former UTV journalist who likes proving people wrong

Published 29/08/2015

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt

John McCallister, Mike Nesbitt's rival for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party in March 2012, built his campaign on Opposition. He wanted the party to leave the Executive "within a matter of hours, if I get elected".

But at that point the party wasn't ready for more risks, high wire strategies or anything that would put members into "for it or against it" camps again. They wanted stability. They wanted the chance to regroup and rebuild. And so they elected Nesbitt by a landslide margin of 536 votes to 129, the largest margin of victory in the party's history. Not bad for a man who only joined the party in February 2010.

Some observers - and I was one of them - argued that Nesbitt won because he was offering nothing other than "…well delivered platitude. He looked good and sounded confident, the perfect replacement for Tom Elliott, a decent man and traditional unionist, but someone who wasn't winning the media war".

Nesbitt seemed to have it all. As a former UTV anchorman and Victims Commissioner he already had a high profile. He was married to the popular and immensely likeable Lynda Bryans, making them a perfect counterpoint to Peter and Iris. He knew the media game. Most important, of course, he had no political baggage and no cabal of internal opponents to plot against him.

The scale of the victory gave him a control of the party that some of his predecessors, David Trimble and Reg Empey in particular, could only have dreamed of. But what was he going to do? His vision didn't seem to go much further than, "as a party we must believe in ourselves again"; "we must shrink to grow"; and "revival of our fortunes will require two electoral cycles". Yet three years on, the rot, in electoral terms at least, seems to have stopped.

Observers are able to mention the UUP and revival in the same breath and with a straight face. Two MPs have been returned to Westminster, the first since 2005. Nesbitt has been seen to take tough action with internal troublemakers and problems.

Sources inside the UUP say they are confident of winning back the seats lost when Basil McCrea, John McCallister and David McNarry left, as well as picking up at least four other seats - taking them up from 13 seats in the Assembly to 20.

Nesbitt was born in north Belfast on May 11, 1957, but his family moved across to the east when he was six. He has an older brother and a younger sister. His late father and uncle ran the family linen business (A Nesbitt & Co Ltd, Linen Manufacturers) until it was destroyed by a bomb on January 25, 1973.

"I was supposed to be the third generation Nesbitt to run the family business, but the bomb put paid to that. However, I did become the third generation Nesbitt to work on the land where the business had been based, because BBC NI took it over and I did indeed work on Linenhall Street West."

He was educated at a nursery school on the Lansdowne Road; Bloomfield Collegiate ("I know.But they took a few boys at primary level back then".); Campbell College; Jesus College Cambridge (MA in English Lit) and Queen's University, Belfast (Diploma in Business Administration). He has happy memories of growing up: "The love of parents and grandparents, summer holidays in Portstewart, a teacher who inspired me and turned my academic performance around, playing in possibly the best Medallion rugby team in Britain or Ireland, aged 16, and running 400 hurdles for Irish Schools."

He started working for BBC NI Sport during his years at Queen's: "It was great timing. I got to two Fifa World Cups - Spain 1982 and Mexico 1986, followed Barry McGuigan's journey to become world boxing champion and Joey Dunlop, too. They were great days, with fond memories." He switched to news and current affairs and was the sole presenter for three years of Radio Ulster's flagship Good Morning Ulster programme.

"I wasn't politically active when I was growing up, but I was always curious why anyone wanted to blow up my father's business and the way it impacted his life - destroying all his certainties in an instant but leaving all the responsibilities."

When asked if there was ever a moment during his news career when he thought that he could do a better job than the politicians he was interviewing he says, "Not in the sense of wanting to be the politician, but yes, having researched the subject matter under discussion, I was often surprised when a politician pursued a particular line when I thought stronger arguments were available."

He joined UTV in 1992 and remained there until 2006 when it was reported that he was leaving because he wasn't happy with the terms and conditions of his new contract. He married Lynda Bryans in Hawaii in 1992 - she had proposed to him in the Russian Tearooms in New York on February 29 - and they have two sons, PJ (20) and Chris (18).

His brief time as a Victims Commissioner, from January 2008 to February 2010, "convinced me that if I wanted to make a difference, I needed to go political."

Quite when he reached that realisation is not certain, but he must have been in conversations with the UUP (who, at that time, had established an electoral pact with the Conservatives) from around the early autumn of 2009.

Anyway, he resigned as a Victims Commissioner on February 17, 2010, and stood as the UCUNF candidate for Strangford in that year's general election. He lost to Jim Shannon, the DUP's sitting member, but was returned to the Assembly in the 2011 election.

Less than a year later he was leader of the UUP. He has confounded his media critics and political opponents by seemingly turning around the fortunes of the party. He has taken huge risks - Trimble and Empey, for instance, would probably have fought to keep McCallister, McCrea and McNarry on board -but Nesbitt let them go.

The election deal with DUP was widely regarded as a mistake, yet he now has two MPs. He is still prone to tetchiness during interviews, but his performances are generally more measured and thought-through than they were during the first year of his leadership. Electoral success has made him more confident, more relaxed.

Removing the UUP from the Executive is the biggest risk he has taken. It will, almost certainly, lead to the collapse of the Executive in the next couple of weeks and nobody can be sure what happens afterwards. He is clearly up for an early election, reckoning that Robinson and the DUP are weaker than they were, yet not so weak that Sinn Fein could sneak into the First Minister's Office - an outcome that would damage Nesbitt.

But if there isn't an early election and if the DUP decides to play rough with him - and it's worth remembering that the DUP is at its most ruthlessly effective when its back is to the wall - then there could be a very unpleasant war between the two big unionist brands.

Nesbitt is also going to need to nail down a coherent, credible response to the question, "under what conditions would you return to an Executive that includes Sinn Fein"? He cannot go into an election without that answer.

The next election will be the most important election for the UUP since the 1998 Assembly election: which is when the first signs of decline were obvious. Nesbitt has raised the stakes by setting an agenda the DUP is not comfortable with. There are enormous risks for him, of course, but also enormous possible rewards. He has surprised just about everyone since March 31, 2012. He surprised them all again last Thursday. If I could sum him up it would like this: he likes to surprise and he likes to prove people wrong.

Not bad qualities for a political leader in Northern Ireland.

A life so far

  • Born in 1957, he is a graduate of both Cambridge and Queen's
  • The family business was destroyed by a bomb in 1973
  • He began his career with the BBC in the early 1980s then worked for UTV
  • He is married to Lynda Bryans
  • He is a former Victims Commissioner
  • He was elected UUP leader in March 2012

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