Wednesday 16 August 2017

The rise and fall of the man behind the Mike

He was a TV news presenter who turned into one of the North's ­political high fliers. But how did he end up laid out on the floor in a hotel lounge? Our reporter profiles Mike Nesbitt

'A bit of fun': Mike Nesbitt and his wife Lynda Bryans
'A bit of fun': Mike Nesbitt and his wife Lynda Bryans
The photo published in Sunday Life of Nesbitt lying down in the Stormont Hotel. Photo supplied by Sunday Life
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

It is certainly no ordinary pose for a candidate in a parliamentary election. Mike Nesbitt, former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and candidate for Strangford, was photographed in recent weeks lying face down in the lounge of the Stormont Hotel, while an elderly woman appeared to tug on his collar.

But Nesbitt is no ordinary Northern politician and he hardly conforms to the stereotype of the dour, puritanical unionist. It is hard to imagine such late party stalwarts as Terence O'Neill or James Molyneux being snapped in a similar arrangement on the deck on a convivial night out.

Annus horribilis

The Cambridge-educated member of the Northern Assembly made his name as a broadcaster, presenting a popular evening show alongside his wife Linda Bryans. The pair were cast as a 'golden couple' with their his and hers on-screen banter.

They were the Richard and Judy of the North, and at one stage had their own Sunday morning show across the ITV network.

Alex Kane, a former director of communications with the UUP, describes Nesbitt as "suave, sophisticated, and eloquent", but not a natural political animal.

He became unionist leader five years ago with great hopes resting on his shoulders that he could revive his party, which in recent years has played second fiddle to the DUP.

But this has been something of an annus horribilis for Nesbitt. He quit the leadership of his party immediately after it underperformed in the March elections to the Northern Assembly. In an emotional farewell speech as leader he talked of creating a "post-sectarian society."

"When people are too busy enjoying life the more secure the Union will be," he said.

Then came the latest episode as he tries to get elected to parliament in Westminster.

The widely publicised photo of him spread- eagled in a hotel led to days of speculation about what might have happened on his night out in the Stormont Hotel.

There was even an implausible suggestion that the septuagenarian in the photo, Marie Hyland, had knocked him out. She is a grandmother of the boxer Paul Hyland, but she moved to dismiss reports of such a pugilistic feat last Sunday.

"It's rubbish to even think I could knock a man out," she said in an interview with the Sunday Life newspaper. "I didn't punch him. In fact I never laid a finger on him."

"There was a bit of banter and he lay down on the floor. I got on top of him, we were messing around, and his friend was taking photos. His friend was actually telling us how to pose."

The politician had gone to the hotel with three friends after a game of golf and he met up with a wedding party, which included Ms Hyland.

Appetite for fun

Nesbitt himself was initially slow to explain the circumstances of the photograph, saying little other than: "I went to the hotel with three friends... things happened."

As accounts of what actually happened became more colourful, Nesbitt finally gave a more comprehensive statement in recent days.

He insisted it was a social night out in which "nothing untoward took place". He said his involvement with the wedding party was "just a bit of fun, banter and play-acting".

There are other incidents in Nesbitt's life where he exhibited his appetite for fun. As a long-haired student at Cambridge University, he once ran on stage during a Thin Lizzy concert and was removed by the bouncers. His favourite song is Thin Lizzy's 'Still In Love with You'.

Nesbitt has spoken about how he was destined for a life in the family linen business, until it was destroyed in an IRA incendiary bomb in 1973.

Now aged 60, he attended the posh fee-paying school Campbell College and ran 400 metres hurdles for an Irish schools athletics team.

His first break in broadcasting came as a sports presenter at the BBC and he covered two World Cups. When he was Ulster Unionist leader, he said that if he was ever First Minister, he would not only attend Northern Ireland's games, but also the Republic of Ireland matches.

"As First Minister, I would have gone to both matches. I admire Michael O'Neill [the Northern Irish manager] and Martin O'Neill. I support NI but also wish RoI well."

At UTV, he presented the evening news programme for 10 years, and it was during this time that he co-presented with his wife.

The couple married in July 1992, four months after Lynda proposed to the presenter in New York's Russian Tea Room, and they honeymooned in Hawaii.

They went on to have two boys, PJ and Christopher, and she credited her husband for helping her through a bout of clinical depression following the birth of their first son.

Previous marriage

Nesbitt sympathised with Iris Robinson, wife of the former First Minister Peter Robinson, when she suffered her own mental health difficulties.

"I know the difficulties of someone living with mental health issues because my wife Lynda Bryans struggles with depression. It's a very tough road."

As well as his two sons, Nesbitt also has two daughters from a previous marriage, and the details of this were only made public when he first entered politics.

In 2008, after he left broadcasting he was appointed as a Victims' Commissioner for the Troubles, representing the needs of those injured during 30 years of conflict.

Nesbitt then joined the UUP in 2010 and was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2011 as a representative for Strangford.

A smooth and assured performer in debate, he was chosen as leader of the UUP in 2012. When he took over as leader, it was hoped that he would bring colour to a party of "grey men in grey suits".

However, reviving the party proved to be a tall order. The party was in sharp decline by that time and Nesbitt was coming to a career in politics relatively late.

Mr Kane says: "One of his problems was that he didn't really know the party grassroots.

"He never really had his finger on the pulse, and the Ulster Unionist party is a very hard party to lead."

In the doldrums

At the Westminster election in 2015, the UUP managed to return two MPs. But in last year's Assembly election, he failed to shake the DUP's dominance, as Arlene Foster took over leadership of the larger party, and the party remained in the doldrums at this year's Assembly elections.

It was hoped that Nesbitt would win back middle-class support by presenting a more liberal face of unionism, but Mr Kane believes the message coming from the party was confused.

While Sinn Féin was happy to embrace same-sex marriage, Nesbitt only expressed his support for it after the recent Assembly election was over.

Political pundits believe that he has little chance of winning a seat in the Westminster election. However, he will remain as a member of the Assembly for Strangford.

Observers of the political scene expressed surprised that a media-savvy performer like Nesbitt did not respond much more quickly to the reports of the incident in the hotel.

Together with his wife, Nesbitt runs a company that offers media training. She has declined to comment on the incident, telling a reporter this week: "I'm sorry I can't say anything. I'm not permitted."

@KimBielenberg

Indo Review

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