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Eilis O'Hanlon

Yes, Mike Nesbitt did the wrong thing, but now he's done the right thing... he deserves the chance to make amends

Eilis O'Hanlon


The Ulster Unionist MLA is hardly the only person in Northern Ireland who has broken the lockdown, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

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Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt

Mike Nesbitt's car outside the Portballintrae property

Mike Nesbitt's car outside the Portballintrae property

Mike Nesbitt at Stormont later

Mike Nesbitt at Stormont later

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Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt

There's one thing that can be said in defence of Mike Nesbitt, the former TV presenter and current MLA for Strangford, who's been caught breaking the lockdown on two separate occasions by travelling to stay with a female friend on the north coast, and it's that he promptly resigned from his role as deputy chair of the Committee for the Executive Office at Stormont when it came out.

He didn't make excuses for his behaviour. He didn't stamp his feet and play the victim.

That doesn't cancel out the error. But, in a world where politicians are notoriously reluctant to resign, even when they've messed up badly, that tells its own tale about the former Ulster Unionist leader's character.

It took Sinn Fein's Barry McElduff 10 days to bow out as MP for West Tyrone after being accused of mocking victims of the Kingsmill massacre by posting a video of himself with a loaf of bread on his head on the anniversary of the killings.

Mike Nesbitt didn't wait to see whether he could ride out the storm. He accepted responsibility and stepped down at once.

Of course, it could be argued that he was left with no choice, not having the proverbial leg to stand on.

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The committee on which he served exists to give advice to Executive ministers; and, though Mike Nesbitt has by no means been a prominent figure during the coronavirus crisis, it's never a good look when people in public life are shown to be better at giving out advice than they are at following it.

The guidelines on social distancing and non-essential travel had been clear for some time when he breached the lockdown, after all.

His first visit to Portballintrae on the Co Antrim coast reportedly took place on the weekend of April 4/5. That was just one day after it was announced that there had been 12 more Covid-19 deaths in Northern Ireland, the largest daily increase to date.

By the time of his second visit, two weeks later, the total number of deaths here was just under 200. There could have been no doubt about the seriousness of the crisis facing the country, but he went anyway.

It was, as Mike Nesbitt readily acknowledged, a dreadful lapse in judgment. Just days after ordinary families were being praised for staying away from seaside resorts, such as Portrush, over Easter, one of the UUP's last remaining MLAs was ensconced a few miles further along the coast in someone else's home. There can be no clearer example of a "Do as I say, not as I do" mentality.

It's important, at the same time, not to go overboard with the condemnation. If Mike Nesbitt and his female friend were both isolating at home the rest of the week, then the risk of them either catching coronavirus, or spreading it to others, would have been minimal.

A few days before that second visit, Health Minister Robin Swann had even announced that the peak of the outbreak had already been reached and that the death toll as a result of the virus "may now potentially be less severe than we feared".

None of this is a justification for his actions. He shouldn't have done what he did. Let's be honest, though: he's hardly the only person in Northern Ireland who's broken the lockdown.

Thousands of fines and warnings have been issued by police across the UK as people test the limits of the restrictions. Other politicians aren't exactly setting a shining example, either. The DUP's Jim Shannon and Ian Paisley actually flew in to London to take part in a session in Parliament a few weeks ago at which only around 20 MPs were present.

Both expressed concern about potential issues with electronic voting, as new social distancing measures in Parliament came into place. Jim Shannon declared that he himself wasn't technically proficient.

As excuses go, they don't come much more feeble. Other MPs had stayed at home and contributed through video-links. Was it really necessary for Jim Shannon and Ian Paisley to be in Westminster in person?

If they don't know how to work remotely, then learn. Grandparents on lockdown are getting to grips with Skype and Zoom. Jim Shannon should be able to do it, too. He's only 65, not Methuselah.

Incidents like this are a reminder that people in public life often try to tell everyone else how to live while doing the exact opposite themselves. Celebrities fly around the world while preaching about climate change. They constantly moan about Press intrusion while selling photographs of their luxury weddings to magazines like Hello! It's infuriating.

Mike Nesbitt has been foolish, too, but what pointing an accusing finger at him really exposes is a deep urge in people to find heroes and villains at moments of national emergency.

Doctors and nurses in the NHS are - rightly - being hailed for risking their own lives to save others; but there's a need for bad guys to blame as well and everyone has their favourite suspects.

Commentators in Dublin are blaming the north for moving at a slower pace. Political opponents elsewhere berate Boris Johnson, or President Trump. Sinn Fein still seems to want to deprecate the efforts of their unionist counterparts in the Executive.

There's nothing more alarming than an invisible enemy that lives in the air and doesn't care who it strikes. All this mutual recrimination is a way of coping with fear.

If we can only find someone, or something, to blame - Chinese eating habits, the Brits, 5G phone masts, whatever it happens to be - it all begins to feel that bit more manageable, as if it's part of the ordinary world of political scandal, rather than something entirely new and terrifying and beyond our control.

Now there's another villain to add to the list in the unlikely form of Mike Nesbitt.

If we're honest, the real reason he's come under so much scrutiny is probably because it allows us a chance to speculate intrusively on his private life and that's fair enough. We're only human.

But so is he. Mike Nesbitt has reportedly been living alone in rented accommodation since January, away from his wife of 28 years, former on-screen partner Lynda Bryans. His mother sadly died in February.

It's a harsh philosophy of life which can't find some sympathy for a man in that situation.

People's mental health matters, too. Loneliness and isolation can take their toll.

He did the wrong thing and now he's done the right thing. He should at least be given the chance to make amends.

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