Unionist unity raises its head again

Internal unionist navel gazing following last weeks’ Mid Ulster by election has been exacerbated by allegations that the DUP and UUP last year held serious negotiations over a possible full merger.

Internal unionist navel gazing following last weeks’ Mid Ulster by election has been exacerbated by allegations that the DUP and UUP last year held serious negotiations over a possible full merger.

The report for BBC Northern Ireland’s “Spotlight” programme said that “last year’s talks advanced to the point where the DUP and an external backer of the UUP group were preparing to finance public opinion research about the proposed merger”.

Speaking to the programme, the former Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside, who took part in the talks, confirmed that turning the DUP and UUP into one single party was on the agenda declaring that a “totally united unionist party” was under consideration.

He explained:

“One party, one membership, one leadership, one manifesto, one parliamentary party at Westminster, one parliamentary party in the executive, one party in Europe.”

Burnside went on to say that “a number of officials” from the UUP “believed it was worthwhile exploring the pluses and minuses of uniting unionism and we prepared a policy paper and I took it to Peter Robinson”.

The programme went on to identify the current deputy leader of the DUP, Nigel Dodds MP, as being one of those involved in discussions.

Pointedly refusing to deny that talks were happening, he said:

“Whatever discussions we have had with others will be done on the basis of confidence and confidentiality where that is the basis on which they are held.

“And we will not be discussing it openly or publicly when that’s not the basis on which those talks were agreed.”

Professor Jon Tonge, an expert in British and Irish politics at the University of Liverpool, went on to say that for the UUP a proposed merger would be “between a cat and a canary, in that they are simply going to be swallowed whole by the DUP”.

The developments are likely to raise further tensions over the future of the UUP, once the dominant force in Northern Ireland’s unionist politics, following the resignation by two senior members of the party in protest at the decision to field a unity candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election.

The programme will further raise questions over assurances given by the then party leader Tom Elliott, who in January last year wrote to party members to explain that talks were merely designed to “explore areas of cooperation for the benefit of unionism in general” which he said would be “without prejudice to the interests or integrity of the Ulster Unionist Party”.

The current UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, told the Spotlight programme that he was categorically ruling out any sort of merger under his watch.

It comes as one unionist activist in the Mid Ulster town of Cookstown called on the unionist movement to better engage with and listen to its grassroots.

Writing to the Newsletter, Traditional Unionist Voice member, Walter Millar noted:

“There is a clear disconnect between a lot of unionist voters and all of the unionist parties and this will have to be addressed to stop this trend of people staying at home.

“It is clear that many in the unionist family see republicans having the upper hand as a result of the Belfast Agreement. Also, the refusal to give bail to unionist and loyalist flag protestors Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson while republicans such as Sean Gerard Hughes and Brian Shivers have been given bail has rightly made unionists angry and concerned about the way they see policing and justice being delivered. Other unionists are angered about the lack of jobs for young working-class unionists while they see our factories filled with foreign immigrants and nothing being done to ensure that jobs should be given to the unemployed of Northern Ireland first.

“There are, of course, too many other issues to mention – such as education and health – which are of great concern to many unionist voters, but the challenge for all the unionist parties is to listen and engage with the unionist electorate and try to make the necessary changes to ensure that at future elections the stay-at-home voters will come out and vote and also prevent others from choosing to stay at home.”

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