Belfast Telegraph

UUP's chance to rise like a phoenix from the ashes

Forget 'McNarrygate', Ulster Unionists have the opportunity for restoration and revival, says Mike Nesbitt

It is that wonderful time of year when the Ulster Unionist Party demonstrates an almost insatiable appetite for guest speakers, as its network of branches, divisions and associations hold their annual general meetings.

It is refreshing and affirming to be reminded that we are a membership organisation like no other political party operating in Northern Ireland.

We have around 2,500 members, people dedicated enough to pay their annual subscriptions, attend meetings and canvass during elections. These people are not undisciplined.

I shall now disappoint readers eager to hear the Who, What, When, Where and Why of indiscipline past and present. Sorry, but you won't catch me washing the party's dirty linen in public.

I grew up being taught very positive things about the Union. I learnt about how Northern Ireland boxed above its weight in its contribution: militarily, with battles like the Somme and soldiers like Blair Mayne; inventors like Harry Ferguson and Frank Pantridge; industrialism, with Short Brothers and Harland -amp; Wolff; and literary giants like C S Lewis and Samuel Beckett.

And yet, political unionism jarred with my positive view of who I was and what I cherished. Unionist politicians were negative: Never, Never, Never; Ulster Says No; Ulster Still Says No. Of course, there were good reasons for negativity: there was an existential threat to the Union; unionists were being murdered; unionist politicians assassinated. But that negativity illustrated an absence of understanding of how the media, messaging and communications work. The media report change, not the maintenance of the status quo.

What unionism needed to do, and what Ulster Unionism has the opportunity to do now, is be confident about articulating how we have led the change agenda, to the point where it is old news to say we support a "pluralist parliament for a pluralist people".

Today, it is as if there is a finite pool of confidence to be shared out among all unionist parties. This is nonsense, if not propaganda, and if I could inject a characteristic into the DNA of Ulster Unionism today, it would be confidence.

I am proud of the tradition of service that defines the Ulster Unionist Party and, given the fact that political power rotates, no matter what system you devise, the opportunity is there for revival, restoration and renewed delivery.

To those who say my party is finished, I share this experience of how a group of people can turn matters around.

My broadcasting career began as a football commentator in the early-1980s, at the time Billy Bingham transformed Northern Ireland into a team that won the last ever Home Championship, qualified for back-to-back World Cup Finals in Spain and Mexico and became the only nation in history to beat West Germany home and away in the same competition. The list is impressive, but what is even more astonishing is that he did it with the same core squad of players who had just lost 5-0 and 4-1 to England.

So how did Bingham turn a team written off as losers and no-hopers into a unit capable of taking on the best in the world?

Well, I was sitting in the lobby of the Atlantic Hotel in Hamburg, on match day afternoon a few hours before Norman Whiteside scored the goal that beat West Germany 1-0 in the Volkspark Stadium. Billy Bingham joined me for a coffee - and told me how. Sorry to disappoint again, but I'll no more spill the beans on private discussions than wash dirty linen in public.

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