A WORD of caution to all those lining up to giggle at Mike Nesbitt as he prepares to spend 24 hours with a family living in straitened circumstances: Not so fast. For while a Sinn Féin member or DUP member from West or East Belfast might be laughed out of court if they suggested they were going to spend a night in Ballymurphy or Ballybeen, the reality is that, by his own admission, Mr Nesbitt is totally divorced from the life of the 99 per cent. Why then shouldn’t he get a taste of life for the less well-off, even if only for one day?
There is, of course, an element of reality TV about his plan – but anyone who thinks PR politics is out of order hasn’t been watching political developments in the western world over the past 30 years.
In West Belfast, there is long experience of encouraging flying visits by those who would usually steer well clear of this part of the city. North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr and, more recently, Health Minister Edwin Poots are just three high-ranking unionist representatives who have had the red carpet rolled out for them by local people.
It could be argued that these visits were for the optics and lacked real commitment – among the criticisms being made of Mr Nesbitt’s initiative – but the West Belfast community embraced their visitors because they believed even brief encounters would build the peace.
Similarly, regardless of his motivation, we’re happy to give the new man the benefit of the doubt. Mr Nesbitt’s plan to immerse himself in the gruelling reality of life on the breadline will, at the very least, focus attention on the have-nots of society.
For some time this paper has argued that the greatest faultline in the peace process has been the failure to create economic uplift in the working class areas which suffered most during the years of warfare. If the new UUP leader’s stopover highlights the plight of those left behind, it will be no bad thing.
Under its previous leader, the Ulster Unionist Party spurned the opportunity to build bridges outside its (rapidly diminishing) base. Thus, while Tom Elliott was refusing to go to GAA games and branding Sinn Féin voters scum, DUP leader Peter Robinson was giving strong leadership to the unionist people by attending a GAA match and developing a true partnership with former enemy Martin McGuinness.
The result was further electoral isolation for the UUP. For while Mr Elliott wrapped the red, white and blue flag around him, the unionist people were moving on.
It’s to be hoped that Mike Nesbitt will stake out new political ground to the front rather than to the rear of the DUP. That’s where the real political gains are to be made and that’s where the peace is to be built.
We trust that the UUP man will build on the feisty start to his tenure as leader by reaching out to others who often feel rebuffed and ‘dissed’ by unionists. Irish speakers, who find themselves alone in being denied the basic rights accorded speakers of the other indigenous languages on these islands, would surely welcome a new accord with unionism brokered by Mr Nesbitt on the basis of mutual respect.
Similarly, there are communities along the peacelines which are crying out for a proper dialogue with the loyal orders so that they can agree a way forward on contentious parades through nationalist areas. Again, Mr Nesbitt could easily find himself playing the role of peacemaker in such situations.
We wish the new UUP leader well as he faces the challenge of reviving the fortunes of his moribund party and have no doubt that his skills as a communicator and bridge-builder will be truly tested in the time ahead.