The agreement on a single Unionist candidate in the parliamentary constituency of Mid Ulster is, most likely, the out workings of a new and dynamic relationship that Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt have formed in the aftermath of the flag crisis which emerged at Belfast City Hall. The Unionist Forum, set up by the DUP and UUP, was set up to focus on the issue of the flag amongst a range of other issues expressed on the ground to Unionist representatives’.
Amid chaos and crisis the Unionist leader’s of both the DUP and UUP have emerged more united than ever, and the decision taken by both the Mid Ulster DUP and UUP Constituency Association’s is both historic and goes to build a new dynamic following the bitter and bloody fallout between the DUP and UUP over the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
If Peter Robinson, now in his fifth year as the Leader of the DUP and of Unionism, is seeking to cement his legacy, he is going the right way about it by delivering Unionist Unity. Agreement has probably proven more difficult with Martin and his Old Boys Association than it has with Mike Nesbitt who has appeared most hospitable to Peter and the new DUP.
This however has had consequences for Nesbitt. At first he lost David McNarry, over the question of Unionist Unity, and now he has lost two critics and two former Leadership contenders, John McCallister and Basil McCrea. I am sure however that Mike awoke this morning with a smile on his face knowing that he had two less problems to deal with. The UUP is probably more unified today than it has been in some forty or fifty-odd years.
Nevertheless people will wonder today if the UUP has lost three MLAs in the last two years or if the DUP has gained thirteen new members of its Assembly team. If the latter the DUP would sit at an Assembly team of fifty-one members, a number similar to the old UUP in the days of Stormont (1921-72). Perhaps Fred Cobain need not have walked several weeks ago. However, I do not think at this moment in time that UUP MLAs will be joining the DUP in their Assembly group meetings just yet; but perhaps we should watch this space.
Basil McCrea, speaking for John McCallister this morning, stated that a new party was a possibility. He however ruled out a move to Alliance (which many expected) but ruled in an new alliance with David McClarty – who Basil has had a lot of time to get to know over the last few months and weeks on the ‘unaligned’, or minority bench.
Basil McCrea’s call for a new party reminded me of the old and then new Faulkner party formed in the aftermath of the 1974 Sunningdale experiment – the N.I. Unionist Party. It however proved to be a failed experiment, and to be fair to Basil McCrea he has never pretended to be a ‘hard lined’ Unionist of any sort, nor has John. So, are we seeing the emergence of a new Bob McCartney style alliance? Time will tell; but one thing is for sure, whoever is in it will be supporting the principles of the Belfast Agreement and idea of a power-sharing Executive.
Times within Unionism are most certainly interesting and it will be interesting to see what else emerges or happens in the coming weeks and months. It should also be pointed out that Basil hasn’t ruled out the Tories; so, could he and John become their first two Assembly members?
The Mid Ulster Unionist Candidate will go head-to-head with Sinn Fein’s Francis Molloy on March 7th. Mr Molloy trailed in last at the 2011 Assembly election but is likely to come out top in this Westminster by-election with Sinn Fein easily commanding 50% of the total vote. Mr Lutton, a good candidate by all standards, will probably come second with about 30% of the vote. This is the best he can do as you cannot beat demographics.
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