Belfast Telegraph

Why Mike Nesbitt's successor must keep his vision of a non-sectarian society alive for next generation

Ulster Unionist Party cannot afford to retreat to its 'DUP Lite' comfort zone under new leader, says Alban Maginness

Despite comfortably winning his Assembly seat in Strangford, Mike Nesbitt was in fact the biggest casualty of the recent election.

Faced with the greatest loss of seats for the UUP in recent electoral history, Mike Nesbitt did the decent thing and indicated his intention to resign as party leader. He valiantly accepted that he should take full responsibility for the party's poor results. He continues on until the party elects a new leader.

However, it was a brutal and unexpected loss for the Ulster Unionists, who now have only 10 seats in the Assembly, below even the SDLP's total of 12 seats.

At its peak, in 1998, the UUP won 28 seats in the Assembly under David Trimble. Now, being number four in the Assembly pecking-order is a difficult and a galling result, which will require much internal soul-searching.

Gone are the glory days when the Unionist Party was the parliament and was the government of Northern Ireland. However, there must be at least some small satisfaction that the DUP did not fare well either, as they lost 10 not six seats, while their enemy, Sinn Fein, were within 1,168 votes of the DUP total vote.

It is clear that the pitch that he made to the unionist electorate had not worked. His 'Elect Mike and you get Colum' routine failed to persuade, or inspire, unionist voters to support his party. For this, he has received considerable criticism from within and without the UUP.

Surprisingly, even the liberal-minded Jo-Anne Dobson was prominent among those who were critical of his intention to give the SDLP his second-preference vote after he voted for his own UUP candidate. She regarded his remarks as damaging to her campaign.

Quite rightly, in his interview with the BBC's The View programme, he did not regret his attempt to push the party in the direction of a non-sectarian vision of unionism. He frankly admitted that the electorate had rejected his message.

It was he that suggested that, in a normal society, people would vote on performance and that the DUP and Sinn Fein, therefore, did not deserve another mandate. He also said that the 2017 election should be the first post-sectarian election based on the economy, health and so on.

Successful or not, his strategy in this election was a mould-breaking approach by a unionist leader and he is to be applauded for that initiative. If we are to fundamentally change our politics for the better, then unionism needs to embrace the concept of non-sectarianism.

But Mike Nesbitt's record as leader since March 2012 has been marked by inconsistency. At one point, he favoured an association with the Conservative Party. This experiment proved unsuccessful and from that he moved on to an electoral pact with the DUP during 2015 general election.

This saw the successful election of Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan as MPs to the Westminster parliament and seemed to presage a turn in the fortunes of the party. From having no representation in parliament to having two seats was a much-needed boost.

But, of course, this electoral alliance was tantamount to a sectarian head-count of unionists and was hardly consistent with his dalliance with the Conservative Party in Britain.

In the 2016 Assembly election, his party won 16 seats, the exact same as they got in the previous Assembly election. This meant that their vote had reached a plateau and, therefore, demanded a critical rethink of strategy. He had already taken the bold and brave decision to leave the Executive and to go into Opposition.

But for Nesbitt something else had to be put forward to the people and that was his vision of a post-sectarian future.

Probably his vision was not properly enough worked out to those inside the party. Without strong party support it was difficult for him to persuade a sceptical unionist electorate, tempted by rampant sectarian impulses to support the beleaguered leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster.

With Nesbitt's leadership at an end, the danger now is that the Ulster Unionist Party will retreat into its comfort zone and opt for pan-unionist unity and a more 'DUP Lite' position on Brexit and politics at large.

Gone will be the Nesbitt vision of a post-sectarian future, where politics would be determined on social and economic issues. Gone will be the attempt to build a real and dynamic partnership between the party and the SDLP to replace the dysfunctional co-existence of the DUP and Sinn Fein duopoly.

Therefore, much depends on who the UUP elects as its new leader in a few weeks' time. Let's hope that person - probably Robin Swan, or Steve Aiken - will retain some of the non-sectarian vision of Mike Nesbitt.

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