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Mike Nesbitt: How DUP insults the electorate with its dog-whistle politics

Vote for us or something bad will happen. Why doesn't the party seek votes based on their record in government, asks Mike Nesbitt (yes, it was a rhetorical question)

Published 02/05/2016

Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt unveils the party’s billboard campaign for the Assembly elections at Custom House Square
Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt unveils the party’s billboard campaign for the Assembly elections at Custom House Square

Imagine a devolved government that fails to deliver on its promises. Actually, you do not have to. You have just endured one. The parties at the heart of the outgoing Stormont administration - the DUP and Sinn Fein - promised to spend £80m tackling poverty, but didn't. They promised to spend £12m providing affordable, accessible childcare, but didn't. They promised to deliver 5,000 new jobs with a £300m investment to develop the old Maze prison site, but didn't.

What is hard to imagine is that any government with such a dismal track record would get re-elected in England, Scotland, Wales, or the Republic of Ireland.

In fact, the Republic has recently delivered a damning verdict on their last government - and Enda Kenny's administration was recording economic growth at 4%, 5% and even 6%, compared to Northern Ireland's anaemic one-and-a-bit percentage points.

In a normal democracy, the above would be more than enough to provoke change, because we all know the natural electoral rhythms are of change, rotation, renewal. You elect a government, give it a term or two and then dispatch it to refresh while you offer the next team a go. Opting for more of the same, when the same is such dire fare, is not tolerated anywhere else.

Yet, the DUP continues to insult you with dog-whistle politics - vote for me, or something bad will happen. Why don't they ask for your vote based on their achievements? That was a rhetorical question.

This Assembly election is the first in a long time to offer voters the prospect of real change. The Ulster Unionist Party stretched itself almost to breaking point to secure the Belfast Agreement in 1998. It is interesting to note that some of today's 18-year-old, first-time voters are unaware that the DUP took no part in those negotiations, opting instead to stand outside, screaming "traitor", "Judas" and "Lundy" at the Ulster Unionist Party, leaving us to negotiate without their support.

How different recent history might have been had they decided to put their shoulder to the wheel with us.

It has taken time, but the Ulster Unionist Party is now refreshed and we are ready and eager to return to the heart of the devolved government. We have published our vision for how to make Stormont work, a very detailed critique of what is wrong and how to fix it. We followed that with a suite of no fewer than seven policy papers in advance of our election manifesto (all accessible at www.uup.org). Has any local party ever shown more hunger, knowledge, or effort?

To that vision and breadth of policy, we add our people: 33 candidates. No fewer than 24 are new to seeking election to the Assembly, offering the life experiences and skills so badly needed at Stormont.

What will follow the 2016 Assembly election will be different. At our suggestion, the formation of the next Executive will be delayed to allow those parties entitled to be in the Executive to agree the next Programme for Government first.

Why is it important? Because it will promote joined-up government, countering the toxin of individual ministers working in silos. For example, if we agree that tackling educational underachievement is a priority (and it is for us), then, as we all know that healthier children do better at school, the next minister for health will be committed to help the minister for education. So will the communities minister, given their role in respect of social housing. And so it goes, committing every party of government to cross-cutting targets, before they know their role in delivering on those commitments.

The negotiations on the next Programme for Government could last up to a fortnight and will largely determine the shape of the next five years at Stormont.

Our tests will be twofold: is it a progressive programme, likely to deliver real change for the economy, education, health and housing? And have we sensed a collective will to actually deliver it? We are not afraid of the answers.

We have successfully argued the need for an official Opposition at Stormont. The last nine years of a DUP/Sinn Fein-led Executive have created disbelief, disillusion and sometimes disgust at Stormont - not least at the use of petitions of concern, now used to protect ministerial colleagues, rather than minority community groups, as intended.

We need a new era of belief - in Stormont, its politicians and their motivation. There was a time I was being groomed to be the third-generation Nesbitt to run the family linen business. An IRA bomb put pay to that in 1973.

I still have a blank invoice from "A Nesbitt & Co Ltd, Linen Manufacturers". The "A" stands for Alfred, my grandfather, a hard-nosed, Victorian gentleman. Under the invoice title come the words, "The deduction of odd pence is not allowed". That has always struck me as wrong. Businesspeople know only too well that you shake hands on a deal, aware the other side did better than they deserved, and you lost out; but you press on, because there is always a next time and what goes around, comes around.

What strikes me as wrong with the way we do business at Stormont is the refusal of the big parties to deduct the odd political penny from overly-protracted negotiations.

I believe in Northern Ireland as an entity. I see our future positively, based on a growing sense of mutual respect. The old notions have lost credibility. Catholics are not necessarily nationalists, and Protestants have never been exclusively unionists.

My father, another Nesbitt, was of French Huguenot origin. My mother's maiden name is Hay, so an Ulster-Scot. Another son of parents who were Ulster Scot and French Huguenot in their respective ancestry and who, like mine, were traders in the great city of Belfast was Henry Joy McCracken, one of the leaders of the 1798 Rebellion. Go figure.

The Ulster Unionist Party has the confidence to return to the truly progressive position it took to bring on the Belfast Agreement 18 years ago. It is time for another leap forward, based on this occasion on the economy, our children's education, our heath service and good housing for all.

Mike Nesbitt is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Belfast Telegraph

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