ULSTER Unionist party leader Mike Nesbitt is understandably reluctant to discuss his party’s approach to what will be the first electoral test of his leadership – the Mid-Ulster Westminster by-election.
The contest, which is expected before the end of the year when Martin McGuinness officially resigns as MP, is in a part of the Province where there may be more appetite for ‘unionist unity’ than his own Strangford constituency.
Though he is coy, Mr Nesbitt does not take the opportunity to say that his party will definitely stand a candidate, something which many will read as a hint that he is at least considering joining with the DUP, as happened in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
“We have had a small number of internal meetings to establish the principles on which we will develop our strategy,” he says.
“I am content that we have developed the framework which we will use for the election once the by-election is moved. What exactly that entails, I would not be keen to discuss in the public domain in great degree.”
In some ways he is in a fortunate position, compared to his predecessors, in not having to fight a major election for about two years from the point when he became leader.
How important therefore is this by-election to him as his first electoral test?
“It will be as you say my first election, so it will be important to me that we both fight it in the cohesive, coherent manner that I’ve been promoting as essential to the party and also that we come out with a result that we can consider genuinely to be a good result.
“Now how you define good will depend on a lot of factors, not least who all stands up and says I would like to be the next MP for Mid-Ulster because you will know that there’s speculation about whether there will be a dissident republican standing up against a republican. There are a lot of factors which have yet to be played out.
“I’m satisfied that we have now thought through these things and have effectively plan a, b, c – we have that framework, that strategy in mind that we are ready to go down a number of routes depending on the environment that’s set.”
So is there any chance that the UUP would not stand?
“We have looked at every option and until we know the actual environment,” he said. “It is not possible to say what we are going to do, but our minds are very open that there are a number of options – not just to the UUP to promote the UUP – there are a number of options in the best interests of the pro-Union vote, particularly in that area which you understand feels they have not just been badly served, but just haven’t been served at Westminster for a long number of years.
“The options are on our agenda and they are pretty embracive.”