Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

It's now time to make up your mind Mr Nesbitt

On the eve of his annual conference, the UUP leader must decide between merger with the DUP and standing alone, argues Alex Kane

Mike Nesbitt with Peter
Robinson
Mike Nesbitt with Peter Robinson

Mike Nesbitt has used a variation on that particular theme for the past few months: yet it sounds pretty tinny when heard against the background noise of joint letters, joint leaflets, joint dinners, joint hosting of the Unionist Forum, a joint candidate in Mid Ulster and then leaving the door open for joint ventures at other elections.

Joint committees, to explore a number of issues, have just been established by the forum, raising the likelihood of both parties being jointly bound by any conclusions or decisions reached by them.

The problem for Nesbitt is that, like Hamlet's mother, he "doth protest too much, methinks".

He says he's against unionist unity, yet continues with a scale of co-operation and joint action which suggests the very opposite: the ultimate mixed message.

And he hasn't been helped by a recent BBC Spotlight programme, which claimed that senior members of the DUP and UUP (in what David McNarry described as a "separate, but parallel process") were involved in merger talks.

Indeed, I have a 'secret' document which indicates that the talks process, in terms of the UUP's interest in it as a strategy, goes back to the summer of 2010.

One thing is certain, though: the UUP needs to make up its mind one way, or the other – either go for what will be, to all intents, a merger (even if, like the UCUNF project, they keep their own name and identity), or cut the ties and stand on their own two feet.

Either of those options will result in the loss of both members and voters, but surely that's preferable to the never-ending spectacle of division and confusion, which is also losing them members and voters?

There are certain circumstances under which a party can survive as a 'broad church'. The UUP managed it for decades, because it was running Northern Ireland and faced no major competition from another unionist party. All that mattered to the various factions within its ranks was that they kept chalking up electoral successes.

But you cannot survive as a broad church if one wing favours merger/close co-operation with the DUP and the other wing doesn't. According to a Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll at the last UUP conference, only 38% of their members support a single unionist party, while 42% favour electoral pacts in marginal seats. In contrast, polling at the DUP conference indicated 78% for unity and 90% for pacts.

So, if Nesbitt is personally in favour of increasingly close co-operation (and his actions speak a lot louder than his denial), he risks implosion at some point.

There are clearly members and voters east of the Bann who seem attracted by co-operation, but east of the Bann is a different environment; an environment in which increasing numbers of voters have stopped voting for either the UUP or DUP. It would be a very big risk to proceed on the assumption that they would be attracted by unionist unity.

On the other hand, the UUP retains a solid core vote, which seems to favour a stand-alone party – a vote I would put at around 65,000.

That's a good base to start from – if Nesbitt has the courage and the genuine inclination (and it would require both) to walk away and put considerable, substantial distance between the UUP and DUP.

From such a position, he would be better placed to attract 'swing' voters (which includes people presently voting DUP, Alliance, Ukip, Conservative and maybe even TUV); that very large pool which has stopped voting; the thousands of young voters who are newly registered; and maybe, just maybe, the thousands of Catholics who would identify themselves as small-u unionist, or Northern Irish.

Mind you – and this will be easier said than done – he would have to set out a clearly defined role, relevance, purpose and direction if he goes down the separation path; as well as giving an unambiguous commitment that the UUP would contest all future elections on its own platform, own colours and own manifesto.

Yes, he would lose members and voters. But so what, if he is able to replace those losses and increase his overall tally of votes and members?

Professor Jon Tonge described the present DUP/UUP relationship as akin to that of the relationship between a cat and a canary.

He's right. And the UUP cannot hope to survive as a vibrant, credible political/electoral alternative if perched in a cage on the DUP's mantlepiece.

What can it offer the electorate from that position? Voters who want unity will simply vote for the larger party in the relationship, while those who don't will stay at home or wander into the arms of Alliance or, more likely, Basil McCrea and John McCallister.

Mike Nesbitt addresses his AGM tomorrow. He needs to be brutally honest and finally, unambiguously, make a choice between the soft merger and stand-alone options. He can't continue to do both.

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