Mike Nesbitt has given his final speech as Ulster Unionist leader, admitting that the party’s disastrous Assembly election performance was “not good enough” and so “the buck stops here”.
The Strangford MLA announced his departure as UUP chief as the election results rolled in and it became increasingly clear the party had taken a major hit.
The UUP went from holding 16 seats in a 108-seat Assembly (14.8% of MLAs) last year to 10 seats in a 90-seat parliament (11.1% of MLAs). It was also demoted to being the fourth largest party after being overtaken by the SDLP.
Combined unionist losses in the election meant that for the first time unionists were not a Stormont majority.
The former Victims Commissioner and broadcaster was strongly criticised by fellow unionists – including some within his own party – for revealing he would be giving his second preference vote to the SDLP in his constituency, rather than another unionist.
Speaking at the Ulster Unionist Party Executive in the Royal Hotel, Cookstown, on Saturday, Mr Nesbitt admitted: “My big regret is the Assembly.”
He said he had hoped that Northern Ireland “was ready for its first post-sectarian Assembly election”.
“I argued the election should be about how well people thought the Executive had delivered. The DUP and Sinn Fein had 10 years and three mandates – the last collapsing within months,” he said.
“I argued they did not deserve another chance to lead.
“I pointed out that this was the first opportunity in the 96-year history of Northern Ireland when people could realistically replace the parties of government with parties of opposition.”
Looking at the election results, Mr Nesbitt noted that “16 seats in a 108-seat Assembly is the equivalent of 13.3 seats in a 90-seater. We got 10. We could not afford a single loss. Three was three too many.”
He took heart from areas in which the UUP went up, but concluded, “that’s all meaningless”.
“The buck stops here,” he added.
Mr Nesbitt, who took over the reins of the party from Tom Elliott in March 2012, also took a swipe at political rivals in the DUP as he insisted that the UUP had put “country first, party second, individual third”.
“My vision remains of a partnership, a partnership of the willing,” he said. “That is not what I hear from the DUP, which is unionism whose language is intent on domination.
“They talk of ‘rogue’ and ‘renegade’ ministers. They can talk of the ‘crocodile’ that needs starved.
“All that language achieves is further division, polarisation and the energising of voters who were previously content to put their constitutional aspirations to one side as they enjoyed the benefits of being within the UK – making money, educating their children, having access to a health service without having to pay – and all the rest.
“What is missing from the DUP is any sense of the values and principles of 1998: reconciliation, tolerance, trust building and the demonstration of mutual respect. It is the unionism of domination, not partnership. It is – to my mind – the politics that endangers our future.”
While Mr Nesbitt is expected to continue on as an MLA, his leadership predecessor Mr Elliott has been named the party’s chief negotiator in the Stormont talks.
Assembly Members Robin Swann and Steve Aiken are among the front-runners for the leadership.
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