There is no doubt that Ulster Unionism has been struggling to find its place. It hasn’t been alone of course in this new era in which the sharp ends of our politics have found a way to meet in the middle, or somewhere about the middle at least, while those who once sat in the middle ground have found nowhere to rest. So they have become cranky like most of us do when we get overlooked or aren’t appreciated. The UUP and the SDLP put in a considerable amount of steady work over the years, not resorting to violent means but at the same time of course being part of the whole diabolical structure of our sectarian, conflicted society which needed so badly to be transformed. But they rightly have said so many times that they weren’t the worst. So it has been hard for both parties to ‘find themselves’ in a society that was changing and beginning that change by moving away from the good/bad model of society to the ‘we’re all in this together’ model.
Perhaps that is something of a clue for the man who will want to be the man for the time. Mike Nesbitt is a man of big character. He speaks loudly and clearly, he has ideas and he is not afraid of his own authority. So he has the potential to lead with strength and with character and certainly a bit of personality in politics never goes amiss. But he will face many challenges, of which he is very well aware, and as he faces them he has to be careful to restrain his strength of character just enough so as to persuade rather than coerce the party faithful and many more besides who can still find something in Unionism that they haven’t found elsewhere. It is a work of both internal capacity building and of outreach. For the internal capacity building it is a matter of putting together a message that will inspire confidence among the people who will help him to make it work or make his life such a living hell that he will go to the wall. For the outreach work it is a matter of restating unionism in a way which is attractive and hopeful, proactive and concerned but maybe most of all, in my view at least, of being connected with the world beyond its own walls. That for me has been the greatest disappointment of middle unionism – it has not been able to stretch out to include a cross-section of this societies classes, creeds and peoples.
So is Mike the man for our time? If politics isn’t to finally fall into a two party tug-of-war with Alliance in the middle then he needs to be that man. If politics is to open up new fields of debate and community growth and engagement then he needs to be the man.
Clearly Mike comes to this with more than a sense of call from his own party, although he both needs and has that. He comes to this with a sense of call from somewhere much deeper in his soul and from one much greater than any political domain or dynasty. When Mike commented on the Sunday reading on his website and hinted that he would run as party leader he was hinting that for him there was more afoot. It takes courage to answer the call and it will take courage to lead. Rather than pulling him apart before he gets started maybe it is time for us to look to Mike Nesbitt and to our other politicians as the people for our time, given to leadership. We have the right to call them to account but when we overstep that right to become perpetually disappointed and bitter and cynical maybe we have stolen our leaderships vocation from them. So if we change our expectations and our hopes and our way of speaking about our leaders maybe it could be different, maybe we could see more done. In fact, it might transform our political context altogether.