Terry Wrights asks if UUP leader Mike Nesbitt is trying to put clothes on the invisible man

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Some faded campaign posters, re-cycled from the Fresh Start election of May 2016 appeared within days of the announcement of the election.

Election literature has been arriving through the letterbox to lie scattered like a packet of spilled jellybeans.

There is more than a passing irony in both situations.

Spin and evasive point scoring dominates television screens and social media. Fear fuelled, internalised and hard-wired prejudice masquerades as strategy.

Candidates, who call for change and claim to be the change, display a reluctance to lead outside comfort zones and posture rather than taking positions. Like space travellers tossed about by events, they orbit each other, keen to make a soft-landing but unclear as to their course. Tactics designed to capture power rather than ethical strategic conviction comes to mind

The modernity ushered in by the Good Friday Agreement is absent. The promise that the future can be better has gone missing.

Unionism, especially that of the Ulster Unionist Party, has claimed often enough that it did the heavy lifting necessary to deliver the Agreement but the creative risk-taking that it would also claim to have displayed, has ebbed and flowed.

Under successive leaders the Ulster Unionist Party has followed a zigzag course of conflicting options. The pacts with the Conservative party and the DUP, on occasions in contradiction of previously stated positions, are a matter of record.

The pact to unseat Naomi Long was not a moment of which to be proud. The party, with other unionist organisations has allied itself with Loyalist forums and failed to provide strongly ethical leadership where loyalism has acted in violation of legal rulings and damaged unionism.

Going into opposition, a role admittedly with which some capable spokespersons have grown more comfortable, has at times seemed stuttering and opportunistic, petty rather than challenging.

Intent on being the broad church of unionism favoured by James Craig and other leaders of a bygone age, it wavers and weaves.

Since unionism split into different factions there is no clear demarcation between some of its members and those of its main unionist opposition.

There is a sizeable number who are DUP – light, confuse politics with identity and religion and are most comfortable when communicating with others most like themselves hence the ease with which members and representatives swap parties.

Whether by accident or design and this is open to debate, the current leader, Mike Nesbitt, in explaining how he will exercise his voting preferences, appears to be charting a different course. It will be interesting to note its electoral impact.

Anecdotal evidence thus far suggests that it has brought gains in terms of support but also lost some. Unionist party naysayers, on social media, are already voicing disquiet at his stance and the response of numerous outgoing MLAs, in failing to support the leader, have ensured that the UUP again goes into an election with a mixed message.

Change is not a policy, it is an attitude that in the Northern Ireland context challenges cultural and religious conditioning. It is disruptive and can necessitate taking down in order to build. Is it not then legitimate to ask those candidates who have cautiously distanced themselves from Mike Nesbitt if they are misunderstanding the priorities?

Tactically they do not want to forfeit transfers from ‘ other unionist parties ‘ but in choosing this option, they make their election dependent, particularly in the case of the DUP, on a party which is toxically secure in an unfettered desire for unionist supremacy.

DUP representatives speak of not being opposed to the Irish language but sound as if they are trying to convince themselves. Like their handling of the RHI situation it introduces a corrosive dimension into political structures, processes and relationships. Consumers rather than creators of democracy they seek to thrive through messy conflict.

They may not be the only party guilty of this but it is the DUP leadership that claims to speak for unionism and therefore carries accountability for the need to act responsibly for the whole of society. It fails by basing its electoral strategy on extreme and negative emotions as opposed to policy and consensus. Lacking civility, tolerance and modernity this acts as an impediment to change.

The outcome of the stance adopted by Mike Nesbitt is as yet unresolved and viewed through the prism of either cautious or contrary reactions within his party bears the hallmark of hasty rather than considered thinking.

The lack of suggestion that other parties in addition to the SDLP could be involved reinforces this conclusion and the possibility that, like other methods in the past, it is a tactic designed to increase representation for its own sake.

The past record of the SDLP and the UUP, as the lead parties in the NI Executive, points to the need to dig deeper than a narrow partnership lacking shared values and aspirations for everyone.

At least, whatever his motivation, Mike Nesbitt has served to table questions that the electorate must consider if it is desirous of lasting change that can only emerge once voters and politicians show willingness to transcend historical divisions of creed and out-dated loyalties.

Following the election he may be left feeling that he has been trying to put clothes on an invisible man, that there is no broad consensus for his approach.

If a logjam, in the negotiations predicted to follow after the election, results from voters wanting change but showing unwillingness to address the consequences of strategies necessary to achieve this, then there may be cause to think afresh.