Belfast Telegraph

No tit-for-tat from upbeat Mike Nesbitt

By Noel McAdam

To be fair to him, Mike Nesbitt says he is attempting something new in the way we do politics here.

At the weekend he took the extreme step of refusing to use his once-a-year conference platform to barnstorm abuse at all other parties.

There was a sense – notwithstanding the ritual of the obligatory keynote speech standing ovation – that at least some delegates were underwhelmed.

But Mr Nesbitt is tired of tit-for-tat. He said he wasn't going to play that game. Instead, he even went further, repeating the criticisms other leaders make of him. Martin McGuinness calls him "irresponsible", for example, and "disappointing".

Mr Nesbitt had his own word for that approach – "binary... it's black or white, orange or green, right or wrong". People, he said, needed to embrace the complexitities. Before that, however, many Ulster Unionists were embracing each other, having something to celebrate for a change. And while there were many topics and themes at the south Belfast gathering, there was only one real question: has the party turned the corner?

Only a relatively short time ago it seemed in disarray, suffering from an electoral tie-up with the Tories, shedding members and even changing leader regularly.

But there is a different mood now. This is the post-Basil McCrea and John McCallister era. Delegates had a spring in their step at the autumn event, which brought an add-value factor. Rank and file members seemed delighted and, frankly, a little surprised at the modicum of success the party has enjoyed – a slight increase in first preference votes in the May local government election, retaining Jim Nicholson's European Parliament seat.

Words not associated with the UUP for a long time were being bandied about – discipline, loyalty, efficiency. "The bottom line is we are a team now and we are seeing the rewards," Nesbitt said.

The first address to a UUP conference by a Fine Gael politician, MEP Mairead McGuinness, who praised Mr Nicholson to the rafters, was also a sign of changing times.

There were some embarrassing moments – Mike's mic went off just before the end of his speech, and then almost half the seats were removed during the lunchtime break before the Secretary of State got up to speak, because a lot of people had gone home.

Nonetheless, this felt like a party in comeback mode. And Mr Nesbitt's vow of reticence will not last long if it looks like the DUP's difficulty is the UUP's opportunity.

Belfast Telegraph


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