Assembly Election

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt quits after party's poor show in Assembly election

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has resigned. Picture by Hugh Russell
Staff reporters

ULSTER Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has quit after his party's poor showing in the Assembly election.

With the UUP failing to make any ground on the DUP, and losing a number of high-profile seats, the former TV anchor fell on his sword.

His campaign pledge to transfer a second preference vote to the nationalist SDLP appears to have been his undoing, with unionist voters clearly not keen on him voicing support for any candidate that favoured a united Ireland.

After Mr Nesbit made his emotional announcement, former television presenter Lynda Bryans held her husband tight and whispered in his ear "I am so proud of you."

As he broke from her embrace to hug their son PJ, she said it again: "I am so proud of you."

It was a poignant end to the brief and hastily arranged press conference that heralded the end of Mike Nesbitt's leadership of the UUP.

The one-time husband and wife on-air presenting team were in the glare of the flash bulbs for perhaps one of the final times. She had forsaken her own career as a broadcaster to enable him to pursue his as a politician - a career now set to end in ignominy.

The conference suite in the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast was unusually quiet for such a significant political announcement - only a small number of media had been invited to attend.

Party stalwarts Lord Empey and MEP Jim Nicholson were also there, sitting at the front waiting to shake hands with the former TV anchor before he faced the cameras.

"I think we all know why we are here," Mr Nesbitt said as he stepped toward the podium.

He could not remain as leader, he explained, after demanding the head of the DUP's Arlene Foster for events that happened on her watch.

"It would be the height of hypocrisy if I didn't take full responsibility for the results today for the Ulster Unionists," he said.

"In pure terms, the buck stops here."

His voice began to crack as he reflected that his vision of a society where unionists could voice support for a nationalist without suffering at the polls had yet to be realised.

"But we will get there," he insisted.

"My final thought, if I may, is when I was a journalist standing where you are, listening to politicians standing where I am, I used to hear them say they wanted to thank their family and I used to think 'what's that all about - it's only a job?'

"Now I understand what it's all about. And I finish by thanking them."

He said that he will remain in position while his successor is found.

 

Mr Nesbitt will remain a Strangford MLA.

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Mr Nesbitt had led the UUP since 2012 and pledged to deliver a new middle-ground politics for the people of Northern Ireland.

He attempted to build a cross-community coalition in opposition to what he felt were the failed politics of the DUP and Sinn Fein alliance.

But on a night of disappointments his party lost stalwart former Stormont minister Danny Kennedy as well as other senior members and failed to close the seats gap with the Democratic Unionists.

Mr Nesbitt led his team out of a five-party Stormont powersharing administration which included Sinn Fein following a 2015 killing by members of the Provisional IRA.

The nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) joined him after last May's Assembly election.

Mr Nesbitt attempted to build a coherent Opposition at Stormont and invited youthful SDLP leader Colum Eastwood to his party conference last year.

He said: "Vote me, you get Colum. Vote Colum, you get me.

"Vote Colum and me, and you get a whole new middle-ground politics, dedicated to making Northern Ireland work, whatever our motivations."

The Assembly election uses proportional representation voting and in an effort to signal his intent Mr Nesbitt said he would transfer his vote to the SDLP candidate.

Traditionally unionist ballots have transferred to other unionists and senior Ulster Unionists voiced disquiet about Mr Nesbitt's breach with custom.

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