Belfast Telegraph

Nesbitt's exit strategy shows he's willing to make bold calls

By Henry McDonald

There is more chance of Manchester City throwing away its lead in the English Premiership than Ulster Unionist Executive members rejecting advice from leader Mike Nesbitt that the party pull out of the Stormont Executive.

To mix sporting metaphors it is a racing certainty the UUP ruling body will vote in favour this Saturday of Nesbitt and the party's main elected representatives proposal to press the eject button and exit the power sharing coalition.

Yet whenever Nesbitt and co land after ejection, the political landscape around them will be altered.

Like the SDLP, there has been building internal pressure within the UUP to get out of a government led and dominated by the Sinn Fein-Democratic Unionist axis, and to form a numerically large opposition inside the Assembly. Up until now there have been only two disparate opposition voices on those blue benches: the Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and the Green Party's Steven Agnew.

Cynics will say that PIRA members who decided to strike back over the Gerard 'Jock' Davison murder by killing Kevin McGuigan have finally, if unintentionally, gifted the UUP that 'opposition option'. That the murder and subsequent analysis by Chief Constable George Hamilton provides the 'get-out-of-the-Executive' free-card the UUP have been looking for.

Nesbitt has presided, in spite of his critics, in a revival of the UUP's fortunes of late. The party's victory in South Antrim, winning back the seat from the DUP's Rev William McCrea, was the crowning achievement in the long road back from near oblivion. The former UTV news presenter and journalist has to be recognised as a leader that put some fight back into a party on the floor, having taking so many electoral poundings from the DUP.

However, cynics and cynicism are the operative words around Nesbitt's latest and boldest move as leader.

Will the unionist electorate be too tinged by cynicism to accept the UUP decision as nothing more than an attempt to outflank the DUP on its right wing? Will those voters, including the legions who are still lost to the DUP, not prefer the real thing in the shape of Jim Allister who can not only say 'I told you so' but also claim consistency in his record of opposition to mandatory coalition?

Then, of course, there is the wider gamble of putting the devolved institutions in place by setting off this latest political crisis.

Back in 1998, in live television debates throughout Easter week and later the May referendum, the late Ian Paisley had little comeback to Nesbitt's hard questions in the studio about what exactly his alternative was to the Belfast Agreement. It is hardly likely that Nesbitt has changed his mind about the overall benign framework of that Agreement and subsequent accords that resulted in mainstream provisional republicans accepting the very thing they used to demonise from their birth in 1969 onwards - the Unionist veto.

The Agreement which, Nesbitt admits tore the UUP apart in the first decade of this century, at least put unionists' constitutional destiny in their own hands rather than London even if it is the Treasury at Whitehall that still picks up the massive devolution bill.

To put that settlement in any kind of crisis mode is a bigger roll of the dice than a mere gamble to do with perceived electoral gains. And even if the motivation for yesterday's exit strategy is entirely genuine and immune from cynical electioneering, Nesbitt's choice is putting a lot more at stake for unionism in general.

Belfast Telegraph


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