Is Mike Nesbitt a bit mad? Does he spend his evenings threading daisies in his hair and claiming to be the reincarnation of one of the Wooden-tops? I doubt it. But at the same time there are different kinds of madness and different degrees of madness, and I’m beginning to think Mike may need, um, help.
Consider if you will his political path. Having assumed the UUP leadership, he’s been casting around for an issue that’d give his party credibility. So far he’s been spectacularly unsuccessful. Which is a pity, really, because Mike clearly wants to be seen as a moderate, rational sort of unionist, one who eschews the flag-waving, croppies-lie-down approach to things. It’s also a fact that he’s perhaps the first leader of the UUP not to be an Orangeman (there is no evidence either way on Edward Carson). And he’s a graduate of Cambridge University.
So when a golden opportunity to present unionism’s case to the people who most need to hear it - republicans - became available at the Shinners’ Europa conference last Friday, you’d think Mike would have leapt at the chance. Uh-uh. First it was yes, then it was no. Instead Mike backed into the unthreatening arms of the Belfast Telegraph. There he explained how if we got our past right, we’d be in a key position to make progress with the future.
Spot on, Mike. So what about the past? What’s called for?
Well, Mike sees any fruitful future dependent on one thing: that republicans concede publicly that their campaign of “terrorist murder” was unnecessary to get to where we are today, and that they should apologise for what they’ve done. Or to put it another way, the best way for two antagonists to make peace is for one of them to admit he was totally to blame for everything.
The interesting thing is, I was at the Sinn Féin conference and do you know, none of the unionists who spoke, either from the floor or in the group sessions, mentioned the need for republicans to take all the blame. In fact they seemed much more focused on the future, on unionists finding a secure place in a world where nobody seemed to want them - not Britain and not the south of Ireland either. What they wanted, they said, was people sitting down and presenting a clear articulation of the advantages of the union, and ditto from those who believe in a united Ireland.
That struck me as an eminently sane approach and sharply divergent from the UUP leader’s position. Which would suggest that Mike might, despite being smart and having been to Cambridge, be a bit out of touch with the real world. Which is madness of a sort, isn’t it? Or maybe he’s been out in the sun too long.