Belfast Telegraph

Why politics is a hard old game for amateurs

Mike Nesbitt's profile makes him an attractive UUP candidate, but he'll need more than a famous face to take him to Westminster, writes Liam Clarke

Here we call them 'celebrity candidates', but in the US there is another term - 'political amateurs' - and, as the title of one book on the subject puts it, the US administration has its fair share of 'Actors, Athletes and Astronauts'.

Most of us have heard of Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth who later sat on the US Senate, as well as Jerry Springer, the chat show host long courted by the Democrats to run in Cincinnati. A host of lesser-known baseball and football stars could be added to their ranks along with news anchormen in local stations.

South of the border, there is a well-trodden path from the GAA pitch to the Dail and Dick Spring, the former rugby player, went on to lead the Irish Labour Party.

Here the Ulster Unionists, the province's oldest political party, is trying to freshen its image and broaden its appeal with an injection of famous names.

The first in the ring were Trevor Ringland, a former rugby international who campaigns on victims' issues, and Flash Harry Hamilton, the Freddy Mercury impersonator who hopes to win back David Trimble's old seat in Upper Bann from the DUP.

The latest to throw his hat in the ring is Mike Nesbitt, the former TV anchorman turned Victims' Commissioner. Last week he was selected to contest Iris Robinson's former seat in Strangford and he is clearly keen to shake off the charge of amateurism before it has time to stick.

He will be 53 in May, which is quite old to develop a first time interest in electoral politics. As a result, he is at pains to promote his career to date as part of a long apprenticeship for Westminster.

Nesbitt describes himself as a lifelong unionist, though not a natural Tory, and cites Harold McCusker, the former UUP deputy leader who died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 50, as one of his inspirations.

McCusker made a hardline speech against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, accusing the British Government of treating him "like a dog", foresaw disaster and said that he aimed to express his "bitterness with dignity".

It was a powerful speech, but most historians would say that that McCusker's gloomy predictions that the Irish government would tear up the agreement were not fulfilled.

Nevertheless, Nesbitt cites it twice on his website, even providing a link to it, and counts it as an important reference point in his life. He believes that, if McCusker had not died young, he would have been leader of the UUP and there is a hint Nesbitt wants to carry on where his hero left off. Ambition is a good quality in a politician. Nobody should stand in an election who doesn't want to lead his party and create change.

Distributing political power is the purpose of elections, but it can take a long apprenticeship, with relevant experience, to reach the top of the greasy pole. Political hopefuls need to recognise that it will be a hard slog in which there is no guarantee of success and no free lunches.

Celebrity candidates often believe that they will take the political process by storm and then flounce off in disgust at the first difficulty.

That is what happened to George Lee, the former RTE economics editor, who was parachuted in as a celebrity candidate for Fine Gael in last year's Dublin South by-election.

Lee was a household name and trusted economic commentator, used to fame and flattery. In the midst of a recession, voters were willing to believe that he would know more than the politicians who got them into this mess in the first place.

He swept home with 53% of the vote, but winning the election last June turned out to be the easy part. Last week he resigned the seat, apparently annoyed that he wasn't running the country yet, and complaining that he had "virtually no influence or input" in forming economic policy.

From pampered star of the state broadcaster, whose every comment was listened to in homes across the country, he had gone to backbencher in a four-seat constituency on a cut in salary. It hurt his dignity - not to mention his wallet.

It has happened before in the Republic. Orla Guerin, a former RTE presenter, was parachuted in by the Irish Labour Party leadership to stand for the party in the 1994 European election. When she lost her first election she abandoned politics and is now a BBC foreign correspondent. Rejection at the polls is hard, but a professional, as opposed to an amateur, politician will keep on trying in spite of setbacks.

Here in Northern Ireland, celebrity candidates motivated by idealism tend to disappear from the political scene if they are defeated first time out.

That happened with the late football star Derek Dougan and, more recently, the journalist Brian Rowan. Their decisions were understandable as neither of them had a party machine to back them.

To be fair, Nesbitt shows no signs of becoming another George Lee. Lee kept his options open by taking a year's leave from RTE to stand. Nesbitt resigned his £65,000-a-year job as a Victims' Commissioner to stand for the UUP and has burned his boats against a return to any post which the DUP has a say in.

There is no reason to doubt his commitment. This week he wasn't put off when his wife, UTV presenter Linda Bryans, was barred from reading the news until after the election. He seems prepared to take pressure and accept the rough with the smooth.

Besides, there are good examples of celebrity candidates who have made a lasting contribution to politics. We need our politicians to have experience of life in the real world outside the Stormont or Westminster villages. There is no reason why a career in the media or sport should be a less of a qualification than years spent in law or business.

We only have to think of the impact made by Melina Mercouri for the Greek Socialists or Sebastian Coe and Boris Johnston for the Tories.

Instant name-recognition put them all on their party tickets, but grit and determination kept them there.

The question is whether Mike Nesbitt, Trevor Ringland and Flash Harry will match their commitment.


From Belfast Telegraph