Belfast Telegraph

Join us and help forge a fantastic future for UUP

Mike Nesbitt's election as leader of the UUP shows the times they are a-changing in the party

I am thankful to the Ulster Unionist Party membership for this opportunity - and that is exactly how I see it. It is not a poisoned chalice; it is a fantastic chance to turn around the fortunes of a political party with an unparalleled record of service and achievement.

The UUP leadership contest was not a media-friendly event: point taken. John McCallister and I held only one joint hustings and this newspaper was openly disappointed that it was held behind closed doors.

You did not miss an argument, if that is what you were looking for. There was much light and little - if any - heat.

For example, John and I agreed on two things about the outcome on Saturday. We each committed unequivocal support for the other, whoever should win; and, as John suggested, that would be the case even if the winning margin was a single vote.

Imagine a scenario like this: a political party with more than 100 years of service, with a series of events planned around the British and Irish Isles to celebrate the centenaries of their major achievements; an organisation with 2,000 members who have skills, experience and expertise as business people, doctors, nurses, teachers, trade unionists, civil and public servants and more, all eager to help; a party that stands for a concept called the Union, which offers economic, social and cultural benefits to all, in an environment where there has never been a better time to promote the benefits of the United Kingdom, or a better time to be an Ulster Unionist.

I am an Ulster Unionist who likes sport. I was at Shamrock Park recently for an association football match.

Next, I'll be at Ravenhill for rugby union between Ulster and Leinster. After that, it's Casement Park for hurling.

None of the above compromises my political beliefs, or my willingness to criticise aspects of any organisation if I feel I should, anymore than attending a funeral Mass undermines the integrity of my Presbyterianism.

If my beliefs are so weak that I cannot spend an hour in a Catholic church, or a Sinn Fein conference, without fear it will undermine who I am and where I came from, I am weak indeed.

Her Majesty the Queen travelled from London to Dublin last year; it was one of the greatest acts of leadership and outreach I have ever seen.

She bowed her head in respect to the dead of the 1916 Rising. I challenge Irish republicans to offer a reciprocal gesture of equal impact.

That means more than Martin McGuinness offering a handshake, especially if it is on a Royal visit to Northern Ireland.

The Queen did more. She played away from home, to a potentially hostile crowd. She forsook the shallow waters of an apology to swim in the deeper pool of acknowledging the impact and legacy of our past.

I am an Ulster Unionist who finds a cultural home in the poetry of John Hewitt, but can admire the construction of the music of Christy Moore, without accepting every sentiment.

I run a personal website and blog from time to time. The site offers me statistics, detailing the number of hits on a daily basis. The norm is under 1,000 (often well under).

The biggest number of hits - 3,342 - was for something I wrote when I heard of the murder of Michaela McAreavey, daughter of Tyrone GAA boss Mickey Harte.

Tracing the origins of those hits confirmed the obvious; they came from the so-called 'other' side. I do not see it in those terms.

What motivated me was that a man who had helped a charity I support had lost his daughter; suddenly, brutally and cruelly.

Why am I telling you this? Because my unionism tells me to do the human, respectful, Christian thing.

I believe in a shared, not a shared-out future. It will take time to get there, so it is all the more important to agree how to recognise the signs of success. For a politician, it is hard to look past the acid-test of an election.

I am ever-mindful that I got elected last May with a turnout of less than 50% of Strangford's electorate. Reaching the disconnected is the challenge and opportunity.

We begin by banking what we have done. The electorate do not want to know about who did the 'heavy lifting' for peace. History will record it was the Ulster Unionists and I am proud of the effort, the saved lives and the opportunities created; but it is over.

So is the pain of the last 14 years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. My party has taken a kicking - sometimes literally - for more than a decade.

On Saturday, we symbolically put that to rest. As many have observed, I am only in the party three years. This turns on its head the image of my party as the one that demands you serve your time through a long apprenticeship.

We are now the party that fast-tracks more quickly than any other. I say to potential politicians, male and female, young and old: come join us. The times - and the party - are a-changin'.

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