I never really fancied being a politician, but I was always attracted to the notion of being an ex-politician. It is a great time – everyone speaks well of you and emphasises what you did well while overlooking what perhaps was not quite so good. Sir John Major is loving it, as an obvious example.
It is important not to be too kind, however, otherwise we risk missing lessons which should be learned. This is so in the case of Mike Nesbitt.
Mr Nesbitt is now earning plaudits for his journey on same-sex marriage and cooperation with Nationalists, and I have long commended politicians willing to change their mind. I would be generous enough to suggest, on balance, that supporting progressive social policy and cooperating with Nationalists is Mr Nesbitt’s true position.
The issue is I do not believe it was ever otherwise. This means that Mr Nesbitt failed to back same-sex marriage and endorsed sectarian Unionist pacts even when he was himself wary of them. In other words, he was willing to put electoral advantage ahead of his own core beliefs. Although all politics is compromise, I am afraid I am inclined to be less generous about that.
Mr Nesbitt also lacked an understanding of the vulnerability of Northern Ireland’s political process. Quickly, and again primarily for electoral gain, he moved into Opposition (without telling anyone else) last May. It is unlikely the Stormont Executive would have fallen had all the parties remained in it, however. That move had costly ramifications – for people in the voluntary sector now unsure about their jobs, for people on waiting lists, for parents awaiting new school builds, and so on. That the DUP and Sinn Fein will fall out is an inevitable reality – the role of other parties, if they really care about country before party, is to ensure such fall-outs are not terminal.
Even during the last election, Mr Nesbitt vastly overstretched by suggesting Arlene Foster should resign (rather than just stand aside). Then, during the campaign, there was simply had no need to specify his second preference would go to the SDLP (potentially costing his party five seats in the border area in one fell swoop while saving only one), nor arguably had he any need to resign immediately while the count was still ongoing.
He led the Ulster Unionists into sectarian pacts and then into cross-community linkages; he led them to conservative social policy while trying to be liberal; and he left the stage with his party reduced to just 10 Stormont seats and in utter disarray having never solved the basic conundrum of why the party actually exists at all. We now look over the abyss into a potential second election which his party will enter effectively leaderless and which will only cause harm to the “country” as well as the “party”.
There is no harm in wishing Mr Nesbitt well in whatever he chooses to do next. But let us be under no illusions about the outcome of his stint at the helm of the Ulster Unionists.