Belfast Telegraph

Brave gamble may prove to be a move too far and too fast

By Suzanne Breen

Almost 20 years after the Belfast Agreement, it says so much about how strong tribal politics remain in Northern Ireland that the very idea of unionist voters transferring to a nationalist party is headline news.

Mike Nesbitt has guts, that's for sure. While other politicians play it safe during an election campaign, he chose to throw caution to the wind and reveal that he would be giving his second preference to the SDLP.

Until now he has been coy on the subject, using woolly phrases about voting for change but not actually spitting out what he meant.

But in his interview with the BBC's Mark Carruthers on Sunday, he nailed his colours to the mast. It was an extraordinary act of leadership, but was it wise?

Nesbitt's declaration left the DUP grinning like a Cheshire cat. It has given it vital ammunition.

The impression that Nesbitt isn't 'one of us' is something it can push with a grassroots who have always harboured suspicions that a former TV presenter lacks the credentials to become the voice of unionism.

And while Nesbitt was saying that he wanted this not to be an 'orange' versus 'green' election, but a referendum on RHI, his SDLP disclosure actually had the opposite effect.

Attention yesterday focused on his voting preference, not the DUP's role in 'cash for ash'.

And while no public divisions have as yet emerged in Arlene Foster's party over RHI, the UUP will now appear to voters to be in disarray with a plethora of local candidates advising their supporters to take the opposite position from Nesbitt and transfer to the DUP and other unionists.

It's a huge risk for the UUP leader to have made such an announcement without bringing his party with him. If senior members don't share his stance, then you can be sure that at grassroots level many are even more alarmed.

Nesbitt may be gambling that his bold position will resonate with those unionists who are so fed up with sectarian politics that they have stopped voting. His position is likely to win support in some middle-class areas.

But in coalface communities it could cost votes. Disillusioned DUP supporters may now look to Jim Allister's TUV. Let's remember that UUP, and not just DUP, members were among the crowd that picketed Alliance offices during the flag protest and supported Camp Twaddell.

"What Mike said is madness," a veteran UUP politician told me last night. "It's not thought out. He just chases headlines and makes policy on the hoof in a TV studio.

"Colum Eastwood didn't even reciprocate. There is no big pool of nationalist votes awaiting us. We'll get very few SDLP transfers and we could lose thousands of DUP ones. We now have the worst of all worlds.

"Mike said he was speaking personally and not for the party, but voters won't divorce the man from his position."

In contrast to Foster, Nesbitt stands as a leader genuinely at ease with nationalists. Has he sensed a new, adventurous public mood or did he go too far too fast in building bridges? We'll know on March 3.

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