With Andrew Neil and Mark Carruthers. Guests include Dominic Raab MP, Lucy Powell MP and Diane James MEP. On the political panel are Janan Ganesh, Isabel Oakeshott and Nick Watt.
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Hello, and welcome to Sunday Politics.
With just under two weeks to go to polling day,
the battle for Stormont is well and truly under way.
And just a year after returning two MPs to Westminster,
the Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt,
will be discussing his party's plan for continued electoral success
and, of course, whether or not he plans to rejoin the Executive,
if that's an option for him when the votes are counted.
And bringing the party conference season to a close -
Sinn Fein is in Dublin for its Ard Fheis.
A united Ireland means the unity of the people of this island,
including those identify themselves as British.
A united Ireland means economic and political benefits
for all our people.
And with their thoughts on all of that and more,
my guests of the day are PR consultant Sheila Davidson
and newspaper columnist Brian Feeney.
Once the major force in Unionism,
the Ulster Unionist Party has struggled in recent years,
as it saw its vote slip away while the DUP rose to prominence.
However, after winning two seats at last year's Westminster election,
the party now says it's on its way back
and is hoping to make gains at the Assembly.
The party leader, Mike Nesbitt, joins me now.
-Welcome to you.
The Ulster Unionist Party left the Assembly with 13 MLAs,
three fewer that went in when it started five years ago.
How many seats do you realistically expect to have this day fortnight?
We're talking in growth, and to be clear,
that's growth on the 16 who were elected in May 2011,
not the 13 who came off the hill at the end of the mandate.
So you're standing 33 candidates.
How many of those do you think have a realistic chance of winning?
-Around about 33.
-As many as 33?
You've spoken to some of my colleagues and you've said,
"Don't be so arrogant," I think you said to one of them,
to presume that you won't be in with the chance of being First Minister.
So you'd need to be getting something like that.
What I was saying was, I felt there was something perhaps arrogant
about Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster
saying that the First Minister has to be from those two politicians.
Who knows what the electorate want?
And certainly on the doorstep, there is an appetite for change.
So you've said that you believe
-all 33 candidates have a realistic chance of winning.
When we're having a conversation
on the Friday or the Saturday after the election,
how will I know if you're genuinely pleased with the result
or if you're disappointed?
Is it 33, anything less than 33,
you're going to be disappointed and that'll be failure?
No. And, actually, the number is written down and it's in my study.
And I've posted it to myself.
It's in a sealed envelope, it's gone through the Royal Mail.
I didn't know you were a member of the Magic Circle.
-And I will open it up on 7th May.
-And you'll reveal all, will you?
-I will let you see it, yeah.
Right, OK. You can do that on our election coverage.
Would you like to give me a hint
as to whether or not it's in the high teens or in the twenties?
I don't want to give you a hint.
What we're targeting is growth, and we've got 33 great candidates,
or 32 great candidates if you want to exclude me,
and they all have a chance, and I want them to get elected.
In terms of share, where do you think you need to be?
Because you'd want to see growth on where you were last time round.
I'm just looking at the figures.
I mean, your figures are somewhere between 13 and 16%,
but the last Assembly election,
with 16 seats, you won 13.2% share of the vote.
So you'd want to be 15% plus, really.
16% plus to be doing really well.
Yeah, and we are targeting significant growth.
And the real measure will be the numbers,
the numbers who are going to go up into room 277 on Monday 9th
for the next meeting of our MLA group.
Right, so here's the question, then, for Unionist voters,
or questions that Unionist voters
might be wanting to get some clarity from you on.
The issue of your party's relationship with the DUP
could be hard for them to understand,
because after entering into an electoral pact last year,
you need to demonstrate
how the Ulster Unionist Party is different from the DUP.
-How do you do that?
-Last year, what we had was an electoral pact.
We were looking at a Westminster election,
at a position where, of the 18 MPs who represent Northern Ireland,
only half in 2010 were pro-union,
and we wanted to get back to a position
of a majority being pro-union,
and we managed that through an electoral pact
which did not involve any kind of liaison in terms of policy.
That's very different this time.
This is about policies on the economy, on education,
on health, housing and all the rest.
And if you look at what we've done,
not only a very detailed manifesto, but before that,
no fewer than eight policy documents,
including a vision for Northern Ireland.
Yeah, but the difficulty is that the Ulster Unionist Party
stands opens to the charge of being Janus-faced.
You're looking in two directions at once.
Because Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott
won those seats at Westminster for completely different reasons.
Danny Kinahan was a liberal progressive
who won against the DUP candidate.
Tom Elliott won because he received DUP support.
Not just DUP support.
-He got support from across Unionism.
-Including the DUP.
And my view was, yes, Danny won it for the Ulster Unionist Party,
but I wanted more than that.
I was more ambitious for Unionism in last year's election.
I wanted something that all Unionists could celebrate,
particularly those who think that the direction of travel politically
is not really going in the way of Unionism.
And what I identified was the ability to win back a seat,
the most westerly seat in the United Kingdom, off Sinn Fein,
who have an abstentionist MP, and put in somebody
who will represent all the people, in Tom Elliott.
-And to do that, we also had the deal for North Belfast,
to make sure that we didn't see
an abstentionist MP elected for the first time.
OK, I've heard you describe yourself in the last 24, 48 hours
as someone who regards himself as a progressive Unionist.
You don't like the word "liberal",
but you're comfortable with "progressive", isn't that right?
-Well, I would choose progressive.
So if you're progressive, you've got a problem with the DUP
under the leadership of Arlene Foster,
who poses a very different and very much more difficult challenge,
I would suggest to you, than the DUP under Peter Robinson.
And the most important words that you've just uttered
-are "as you suggest".
-As a lot of people would suggest.
We shall see. I'm not getting that on the doorstep,
and I'm knocking on a lot of doors.
Right. But she's young, she's a woman,
she's seemingly approachable, she's pragmatic,
she's portrayed as more progressive.
She's not cut from the same DUP cloth as her predecessors
because, of course, she's actually cut from Ulster Unionist cloth,
so she's stepping out onto your lawn.
And if that's the case, she'll sweep the boards.
-Well, that's a real possibility.
-I don't think so.
And we've had the cult of Ian Paisley's DUP,
and now it looks like we're having an individual cult within the DUP again,
and I'm not sure that that is something...
With no disrespect to the individual that is Arlene Foster,
I'm not sure that that is something that is chiming with the electorate.
You don't think that she will manage
to attract Ulster Unionist Party voters to the DUP?
What I'm saying is, we have got a vision for Northern Ireland,
we have the policies to back it up,
and we have the people in terms of our slate of candidates
who are coming with life experiences and skills
which are badly needed in the chamber at Stormont,
in the committees and, indeed, around the Executive table,
if that's where we end up.
So what's your advice, then, to Ulster Unionist voters
continuing down the ballot paper?
Do they back the DUP, do they back the TUV and UKIP?
Or do they think about supporting the SDLP and the Alliance Party?
My advise would be to support those individual candidates
-you think will make a real difference in your lives, positively.
And it doesn't matter what the party label is?
I think it is the individual and their track record
or their promises that is the most important issue.
So that could mean backing the Alliance Party
in certain circumstances, or the SDLP, ahead of those other parties.
It will inevitably mean backing DUP candidates,
and people will do that.
Although it is also beyond question that there will be DUP supporters
who will never ever, ever vote Ulster Unionist, and vice versa,
and we all know that.
What will you be doing in East Belfast?
I mean, after your Ulster Unionist Party candidates, who comes next?
Is it the DUP candidates, who you're battling against,
effectively, for control in the Assembly,
or is it somebody like Naomi Long, for example?
I'm not sure that's an appropriate question to ask.
You don't have to answer it, but it's perfectly reasonable for me to ask it.
-You ask away.
-Well, I have asked. Are you going to answer it?
You're not going to give us any suggestion at all?
The reason I ask is, apart from the pure nosiness of the situation...
-And it is nosy.
-But it's also about you giving a lead,
and it's about you telling Ulster Unionists how you think,
and they might want to emulate how you vote and know how you think.
But that's the cult of the personality.
-I'm leading the party, but people will vote as they see fit.
The party walked out of the Executive last year.
How will voters know whether they are voting for
an Ulster Unionist Party in government in two weeks,
or an Ulster Unionist Party in opposition?
We've said very clearly what we're looking for is a mandate
to go into the negotiations that follow the election
and precede the setting up of the next government.
That was our game-changer
that we proposed in our manifesto five years ago.
So we go into those negotiations with a mandate.
We will be arguing that the programme for government
should contain everything that we have in our nine policy documents.
There will be compromise there, there will be a negotiation.
At the end of that time, there are two questions we have to ask.
Do we think it's a progressive programme for government?
And secondly, and equally importantly,
have we sensed around the table, for once,
a collective will to actually deliver that programme?
And are you just hoping that I don't talk about the fact
you left the Executive over the issue of trust?
-That's that awful hook that you got yourself on.
-I didn't put myself on a hook.
You got yourself on it because you walked out,
you said you didn't trust Sinn Fein, you left the Executive.
-Do you now trust Sinn Fein enough to go back into the Executive with them?
Gerry Adams hasn't clarified the issue as to whether or not the IRA still exists.
No, and you're picking on one element of a sequence,
and what was the sequence?
Murders in the street of Belfast,
a police officer saying that members of the IRA were involved,
followed by the chief constable saying the IRA still exists in a structured manner
and, finally, Sinn Fein's improbable, unbelievable denial of the same.
Four elements there, Mark. What has happened since then?
-I'll make three quick points.
-If I may.
First of all, there's a panel
looking at recommendations to end paramilitarism forever.
I wish they were reporting before the election,
but they should report in about a month's time.
After you've made the decision whether or not you go back into government.
-I didn't say...
-But you have to make the decision without that information.
I've spoken to them and I'm very encouraged by what they're saying.
The chief constable will give the Ulster Unionist Party
a security briefing after election.
He did that last summer, you still left the Executive.
Yes, we want an updated one. That was months ago.
-You didn't listen to him then, why would you listen to him now?
He said the IRA exists with a structure.
He said it didn't exist in the way that it existed,
it didn't pose the threat it did before, you still left the Executive.
Because somebody had to get - and this is my third point -
paramilitarism to the top of the agenda.
And I remember journalists, and you were one of them,
who were very sceptical and cynical about whether we would achieve that.
Well, we did achieve it, and you don't have to take my word for it.
Look at the so-called Fresh Start document, and what's chapter one?
It's not the finances any more, it's paramilitarism,
and the enabling legislation that Theresa Villiers brought to the House of Commons
leads not with finance, which is where she was,
but with terrorism.
I want to talk about a couple of manifesto issues quickly.
You've said if you're entitled to a seat in the Executive
and you choose to take up that seat, you'd want the education portfolio.
Do you want to be Education Minister?
I haven't gone that far,
but I think if we're back in the Executive,
it is normal procedure for a party leader to be at the table.
So that's a possibility.
That's the role you want and you think you could do the job?
I would be confident that I could do a much better job
than Sinn Fein have done over the last 18 years, yes.
And on the issue of academic selection,
are you clear about how you would deal with that,
if you are, indeed, the Education Minister?
What I'm saying is, we would have a deadline of two years from today
to come up with a new way of transferring pupils
from primary to post-primary education.
One of our ideas is more about assessment
than sitting down to examinations,
but if people have better ideas than that, we are in listening mode.
I've asked all of the party leaders, I'll ask you finally and briefly.
Should a woman be criminalised
-for purchasing tablets to procure an abortion?
-Something's wrong in this case?
I believe that was wrong because I believe, had she had the money,
she would have gone to England, she would have had an abortion there,
she would not have been prosecuted and criminalised for it.
-This is wrong.
-And that doesn't mean turning a blind eye on abortion on demand,
because that's what critics of your position say, effectively, that means.
No, I am not in favour of abortion on demand,
but I am in favour of changing the law
to take on board fatal foetal abnormalities and sex crimes.
OK. We need to leave it there. Thank you, Mike Nesbitt.
-Thank very much indeed.
Let's get their assessment of all of that.
With me are Brian Feeney and Sheila Davidson.
Nice to have you on the programme.
Brain, first of all, Mike Nesbitt's leading the party into his first
Assembly election - do you think he can continue that trend,
as he sees it, of bettering his party's electoral fortunes?
Yes, I do. The 2011 result was 13.2%,
and it was 16 seats.
He has to get a minimum of 16 seats.
He has already said he wants to improve on that.
The Ulster Unionist Party were down two seats in 2011 on the previous
election, so really it's a minimum 18 seats that are required.
I think that the way they are going in the last couple of years,
it's quite likely they will need to get 18 seats.
Sheila, what about the strategy of leaving the Executive
and coming back into the Executive on the issue of trust
and all of the issues we've been discussing there now?
Do you think that will be easy for Mike Nesbitt to be able to do,
or could there be difficulties ahead with clarification
on precisely what the IRA is up to at the moment?
To be honest with you, the issue of being in or out
of the Assembly Executive is going
to be a bigger deal than just
that particular thing going forward.
Looking at the debates that have been happening up until now,
and the idea of the commitment to consensual and collaborative deals
within the assembly, and nobody able to say
what their red line is or isn't,
will actually, I think, begin to highlight the idea whether they will
continue to be as a whole, every part needs to look at, whether it's
going to be in the executive or not going forward.
That's what this new mandate is going to start to bring out,
the idea that whether we need to be out of this idea of all parties
in there together, trying to get some consensus on where they are
in any particular issue, be it education, the economy,
anything like that. I think there's going to be
a much bigger deal than just the past visiting back in the future.
Do you think it will be plain sailing or choppy waters
for Mike Nesbitt to lead the party back into the Executive again?
As we were discussing, the timeline is not entirely clear
about who reports when and what the Chief Constable says and so forth.
True, but that's all passed now. It's water under the bridge.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have made up,
there's the Fresh Start agreement and so on.
With the new mandate, it's a new ball game
If they get the votes, I'm pretty sure they will be in the Executive.
Nobody stands for election and says, "Vote for us, we're going into opposition."
People who stand for election want to maximise the mandate they get,
and that will bring them into the Executive.
Sheila, a quick word on the challenge posed by the DUP under Arlene Foster?
I think it's enormous for everybody.
I think there's a game changer going on.
Arlene has been out on the ground,
anybody following her on Twitter or any of the other social media,
there isn't a day she isn't out and about.
Having said that, I think Mike Nesbitt leading the UUP is doing exactly the same thing,
and I actually think there is a completely different approach
to that kind of Unionist politics,
and I'm very interested to see what transpires.
OK, thanks, both, very much indeed. Speak to you again very shortly.
The conference season finally came to a close this weekend with
the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin,
timed to coincide with the actual centenary of the Easter Rising.
Our Dublin correspondent, Shane Harrison, went along.
The spirit of the Easter 1916 Rising
on this, the weekend calendar centenary of the event,
was much mentioned at the Sinn Fein annual conference
in the National Convention Centre in Dublin.
This Ard Fheis is taking place against the background
of Assembly elections next month in Northern Ireland,
and the ongoing attempts to form a government south of the border
almost 60 days after an inconclusive general election.
The proclamation is amongst the finest freedom charters the world has ever seen.
Inside the hall, there were repeated calls for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail
in the Republic to conclude their negotiations as quickly as possible.
Along with appeals to Unionists to come to some form of arrangement
about an agreed Ireland.
The party made it clear, it is against the UK leaving the EU,
but for same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
With Sinn Fein saying it will be in the next Executive,
different delegates had different priorities for the new administration.
I would like to see the next assembly deliver on poverty
and social exclusion policies. I would like that matched
with economic regeneration
and making sure there's inclusive economic growth.
I'd like to see more co-operation between the north and the South.
We have parties down here who think Ireland stops at the border.
There has been challenges.
I would like to see the next Assembly deliver equal marriage.
In his presidential address, the Sinn Fein leader said
a new peaceful and democratic route to Irish unity now exists,
but that partitionist thinking on the part of policymakers must end.
A united Ireland means the unity of the people of this island,
including those who identify themselves as British.
A united Ireland means economic and political benefits
for all our people, and end to duplication and waste.
It must be inclusive, it must be agreed
and it must be welcoming to all sections of our people.
That includes our Unionist neighbours.
This is their homeland also.
But Unionists are Unionists because they don't want a united Ireland.
However, in the weekend of the centenary of the Rising,
and in the run-up to the Assembly elections,
that traditional Republican message
was always going to be well received.
Shane Harrison. Sheila and Brian are still with me.
Brian, you watched Gerry Adams's speech, we didn't see it there,
but there was a lot of criticism directed, perhaps not surprisingly,
at Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
That's right. What Gerry Adams essentially was saying is
that Fianna Fail are trying to put Fine Gael
back into government again, having promised in the election
that they wouldn't do that, and there's a danger of
the same government that people voted out will be pushed in again
by Fianna Fail, but he was also criticising them because
they said that Sinn Fein were not fit for government,
and the line he made was,
look, Sinn Fein's in government in the north, the DUP don't say that.
So Fianna Fail, as he said, are actually worse than the DUP,
so he was very critical of Fianna Fail.
What's interesting is that the whole election has put Sinn Fein
right front and centre,
in a position which they might not normally have had.
The idea that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael...
Fianna Fail does not want Sinn Fein anywhere near government at all
means that they have by de facto had to support Fine Gael.
There's just going to be another election some time soon.
They'll have to fight it all out again,
but I think they will be doing it on the basis that Sinn Fein may feel
it has a much stronger platform going forward.
That's a very interesting point. Brian, before we came on air,
I was looking at some of the Dublin Sundays,
and there is this sense down there that perhaps the two parties
are squaring up for another election sooner rather than later.
-Are you convinced by that?
-I don't think there will be.
I know John Burton has told the Labour people to be ready for another election,
but the big parties don't want that to happen,
they are absolutely broke.
The stumbling block at the moment is Irish Water.
What's going to be done and will people still be paying if they get a deal?
We'll know by the middle of next week.
OK, we look forward to finding out. A bit of clarity would be good.
Thanks, both. Let's pause for a moment and have a quick look back
at the political week here in 60 Seconds with Stephen Walker.
The victims commissioner says 200,000 people have mental health problems because of the Troubles.
We know that young people growing up in those communities most impacted and those families most impacted
are showing the highest levels of suicide,
self-harm and mental health problems of anywhere in the UK.
The man who pioneered abortion law says we have to change.
We've got to face up the fact that the law in Northern Ireland
is simply ridiculous.
But opponents say reform is unnecessary.
There is no human right to an abortion.
Beacons were lit to mark the Queen's 90th birthday.
First-time voters challenged politicians,
but one person found it difficult to choose a party.
Do they think it's acceptable that a young person like me
who's excited to be voting for the first time
can't find a party that's worth voting for,
that doesn't make me want to vote for them?
Stephen Walker reporting. Let's have a quick word about Barack Obama being in the UK
and getting involved in the debate over the EU Referendum. Sheila.
He has involved himself even more than that.
I think the idea that ten years to renegotiate
with the American authorities in terms of trade agreements
is something that's a major signal and a hammer blow
to all of those who want to leave.
But he involved himself in Northern Ireland politics as well,
which I thought was very, very interesting.
Brian, interestingly, he rolled his sleeves up yesterday and talked to some young people.
Whatever you think about his politics, about what he said,
-he's a class act on the stump.
-He is a class act.
He's a different calibre from the politicians we're used to seeing.
It's his command of world affairs,
-whatever question he was asked...
-He had the answer.
It was fascinating to watch him. Thanks both very much indeed.
That is it from Sunday Politics this week, I'll be back on Thursday
as usual with The View, and I'll be talking to the DUP leader Arlene Foster,
but for now, from everyone on the team, thanks for watching, bye-bye.
With Andrew Neil and Mark Carruthers.
Dominic Raab MP discusses the EU Referendum; Lucy Powell MP discusses Labour and the May Elections; and Diane James MEP discusses UKIP and the May Elections.
On the political panel are Janan Ganesh of The Financial Times, Isabel Oakeshott of The Daily Mail and Nick Watt of The Guardian.