Is the UUP a spent force?

A former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leadership candidate has concluded that it is likely he and a former deputy leader of the party will form a new unionist party to take on the UUP and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Our writer Ed Jacobs asks if this spells the end of the UUP.

A former Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leadership candidate has concluded that it is likely he and a former deputy leader of the party will form a new unionist party to take on the UUP and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Just days after Basil McCrea, who challenged for the leadership of the party in 2010, and John McAllister, the party’s  former deputy, resigned from the UUP over the decision by it and the DUP to field Nigel Lutton as a unionist unity candidate in next month’s Mid Ulster parliamentary by-election,  McCrea has said that he and McAllister plan to form a new ‘viable opposition’.

Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan programme on Friday, McCrea said:

“I have stated that I will not stay in an Ulster Unionist Party that is heading towards a merger with the DUP and the decision that the party took yesterday against the wishes of people like myself and John McCallister leaves me with no option but to say that I, too, will be resigning from the Ulster Unionist Party.

“This is the wrong decision for the Ulster Unionist party, it is the wrong decision for the people of Northern Ireland and I will not stand by it. I will not stay in a party that cannot stand on its own two feet,” he said.

Criticising the current UUP Leader, Mike Nesbitt, for presiding over a party that is now ‘no longer supporting the Good Friday Agreement’, he continued:

I have no confidence in what Mike Nesbitt says. He came into this job with only nine months experience as an MLA, in fact he made a virtue of the fact that he had no big ideas. I haven’t seen any ideas other than we need to get into bed with the DUP,” he said.

“There is an agenda in the party to get some kind of merger with the DUP for reasons that I don’t understand and I have made quite clear that I will not be party to it.

The Ulster Unionist party has lost its way. It’s no longer supporting the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”

Warning of the prospects of a bitter sectarian campaign given the choice of Nigel Lutton as the unionist candidate, the son of a former RUC reservist shot dead by the IRA in 1979, McCrea concluded:

“It is squaring up to be a bitter sectarian battle, going over things that happened many many years ago and whatever the rights and wrongs of those issues and obviously there were some tragic circumstances, do we really want to have the battles of the 1970s revisited?”

In what amounts to a firm rejection of the criticisms, however, UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt has used an interview with the BBC’s Sunday Politics Show for Northern Ireland to pointedly leave open the potential for unity candidates in future elections.

Arguing that the results of the by-election would determine future strategy, he explained:

“Let’s see how the next three weeks go. Will it work for the benefit of unionism and when we get the result from that and the answer from that, we can look at it. It would be foolish to rule anything out at this stage.

“We’ve just started a process which to some extent I certainly view as an experiment; let’s see how well it works for the benefit of the unionist people.”

In its editorial on the issue, the Belfast Telegraph has spoken of an ‘air of inevitability’ over the events of the past few days, welcoming the potential to see the formation of a new centrist unionist party. It noted:

“The defecting UUP members may try to form a more centrist unionist group at Stormont, and this would be welcome. This newspaper has long backed a plurality of choice in local politics, and it is time to move beyond the cosy all-party understandings which were part of the early working out of the Good Friday Agreement.

“In stating this, the Belfast Telegraph is not opposing Nigel Lutton, the agreed unionist candidature to fight the election in Mid Ulster. However, it is disappointing to hear Mike Nesbitt talking about providing an agreed candidate which will reduce the election to another sectarian headcount.

“It is clear that the UUP is in serious trouble, and people are wondering what will happen next. Certainly it is sad to watch what was once the most powerful party in Northern Ireland now in such disarray.

“Under Mike Nesbitt’s leadership the UUP is likely to continue to co-operate closely with the DUP, but it is hard to see how this will provide any form of plurality in unionist voting.”

It went on to warn ominously:

The battle is now well-advanced for the soul of the UUP, and if this fundamental dispute is not resolved in the foreseeable future, there may be no UUP left to lead.”

In stark contrast, however, the Newsletter has argued that a unity candidate remains best placed to beat Sinn Fein in Mid Ulster.

Outlining the historical background, the paper observed:

“Since the unionist monolith broke up in the late 1960s, the pro-Union vote in successive polls, due to party rivalry and divisions, has failed to maximise the representation that it is entitled to at Westminster, Stormont and on district councils.

“And whatever dissenting voices may argue, unionist co-operation is highly popular at grassroots level, particularly West of the Bann and in marginal constituencies.

For a unionist to triumph in Mid Ulster would take a major seismic shift in republican/nationalist voting patterns, but, with the backing of all shades of unionism, Nigel Lutton is well placed to seriously challenge Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy as a candidate of legitimate standing and authority.”

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