Ed Jacobs reports on Mike Nesbitt’s election at the weekend as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
Newly elected Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mike Nesbitt, has ruled out any prospect of an electoral pact with the Democratic Unionist Party after a surprisingly conclusive victory in the quest to replace Tom Elliott.
Speaking after claiming the UUP crown, he told BBC’s Sunday Politics Show in Northern Ireland:
“I can’t imagine any circumstances where it would be good for the Ulster Unionist Party, good for the pro-union people of Northern Ireland, or good for politics to have an electoral pact.”
Nesbitt’s remarks came just a day after he secured a landslide victory, winning the support of 536 delegate votes at the party’s AGM in Belfast as compared with the 129 achieved by his rival for the post, John McCallister.
Accepting his election, the former journalist and victims commissioner, who was only elected as MLA for Strangford last year, told his party:
“This is a great party, with a long tradition of service, and its revival will be based on our fundamentals; our values and ethos; our belief in the cultural, social and economic benefits of the Union; our membership who offer the skills, experience and expertise that can give us the capacity to do the business of government better than anyone else; and our ability to reach out to those currently not engaged in the political process.
“Over the coming weeks I will be working on making our party more cohesive and more coherent, and I am determined that we will deliver a shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland, not the Shared Out future being planned by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
“I want everyone in this country to get out of bed with a sense of purpose and go to bed with a sense of achievement. I want the same for this party. I want us to reach out to become the party of choice for every pro-Union voter in Northern Ireland, including those who say until today they had no-one and no party to represent them or for them to support.”
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“Most importantly for us, Saturday the 31st of March brought to an end 14 years of pain. The price we paid for opening the path to peace in 1998 is paid, in full. We accept the challenge of taking Northern Ireland to the next phase.”
Nesbitt’s job now will be to revive a once great force in Northern Ireland politics.
Having been at the centre of the Good Friday Agreement under the leadership of David (now Lord) Trimble, 2010 saw the party’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, quit and subsequently get re-elected as an independent following a disastrous electoral pact agreed between the leader at the time, Reg Empey, and David Cameron.
The episode highlighted the difficulty the UUP have had in recent years in establishing a unique identify that can pose a serious challenge to the DUP as Northern Ireland’s dominant unionist party. Indeed, it was ultimately the claim and counter claims over how close the UUP and DUP were going to become that ultimately led to Tom Elliott deciding to stand down as leader altogether, hence Nesbitt’s scramble early on to rule out a pact.
It was met, however, with disappointment from the DUP, with one of its MLAs, Simon Hamilton, arguing:
“The unionists that I meet throughout the country yearn for unity. They want to see the DUP working with the UUP. They want the pro-union family working together. It disappointed, but didn’t surprise me that Mike’s first policy announcements were that he wants to defeat the DUP and is against unionist unity.”
All eyes will now turn to what moves the new leader intends to make in taking the party out of government altogether.
Having made clear that he would at some juncture take the party’s sole ministerial portfolio at Stormont, during his election Nesbitt said that if successful he would appoint his defeated rival, John McCallister, to chair a committee to asses at the possibility of a move to opposition.