Decision to vote for SDLP did not hurt UUP, says Mike Nesbitt

Image source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
Mike Nesbitt said comments by Arlene Foster "energised nationalists and republicans" to vote

Outgoing Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt has said his decision to give a nationalist his second-preference vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly election did not hurt his party.

Ahead of this month's poll, he said he would opt for a Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) candidate ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

But that decision was criticised by some members of his own party both before and after election day.

It held 16 seats out of 108 in the last assembly mandate, but that figure dropped to 10 in the new 90-seater chamber.

Mr Nesbitt was returned as an MLA in the Strangford constituency, but will soon resign from his position as party leader in the wake of the party's electoral performance.

'Energised republican voters'

In his first TV interview since the election, he told the BBC's The View programme that the election "didn't go well in terms of seats".

But he said that his decision to give a vote to a nationalist was "a small gesture" after sharing several months in opposition at Stormont with the SDLP, and the reaction to it was largely "positive".

He blamed his party's losses on remarks made about republicans by DUP leader Arlene Foster, in which she compared Sinn Féin to a "crocodile" early in the election campaign, suggesting that "it will keep coming back for more" if its demands were satisfied.

Media caption,
Arlene Foster said she won't appease the Sinn Féin "crocodile" over an Irish language act

Unionists lost their majority in the assembly after the election.

The DUP marginally held on to its position as Northern Ireland's largest party, but Sinn Féin made significant gains, narrowing the gap in seat numbers between the two parties.

"That crocodile comment really did serve as a lightning rod that incredibly energised nationalists and republicans," Mr Nesbitt said.

"That was the real quote of the election and the real consequence was the result that put Sinn Féin just a seat behind the DUP.

"I did not energise a single one of those additional voters."

'Not leaving early'

Mr Nesbitt also said that the DUP is "promoting a unionism of domination", which is a "shortcut to a united Ireland".

A "moderate way forward" between the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP was "his only vision".

"I've got nothing else to offer," he added.

The former journalist said he will stay on in politics as an MLA and has "no intention of leaving early".

And he dismissed suggestions that he could become the assembly's new speaker, saying that was "extremely unlikely".