Split: Basil McCrea (left) and John McCallister walked out of the UUP after Mike Nesbitt (right) agreed with the DUP leader Peter Robinson (second right) to stand a candidate in next week's Westminster byelection. montage: itpm
A new breakaway group has put the once-strong Ulster Unionist Party under pressure. What is its future?
‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” That’s a down-home disparaging line from the South Down Assembly member John McCallister, who, along with his Lagan Valley colleague Basil McCrea, has embarked on another adventure in splintered unionist politics. He’s referring to the former UTV news anchorman Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party.
McCallister and McCrea walked out of the UUP in the middle of February after Nesbitt, with the DUP leader Peter Robinson, agreed to stand a unionist unity candidate, Nigel Lutton, in next week’s Mid-Ulster Westminster byelection.
This, the “two Macs” argued, signalled a “retreat into sectarian trenches” and confirmed “that there is little to separate the current unionist parties: no matters of principle, no overarching values, no policy differences upon which to fight an election”.
So on Tuesday night 41-year-old McCallister, a farmer from Rathfriland, and 53-year-old McCrea, who was born in Ramelton, Co Donegal, took the decision to start a new pro-union party.
It will not have the word unionist in its name or the Union flag in its logo. The name of the party will come after issues have been ironed out with the Electoral Commission. Its formal launch is likely to happen in April.
It’s a courageous move, but, as devotees of Yes Minister will know, that’s a term sometimes used as a euphemistic political putdown. But, brave or barmy, it’s a decision that puts great pressure on Nesbitt.
What happens in the coming months could determine whether the Ulster Unionist Party, which dominated politics for so long in Northern Ireland under powerful names such as Edward Carson, James Craig and David Trimble, will have a future of reasonable strength and relevance.
As Martin McGuinness and, more particularly, Gerry Adams pursue their Border poll project, you could imagine the pair of them rubbing their hands as unionists appear to fall for the old British divide-and-conquer routine, but in this case authored by themselves.
Nesbitt, in his leadership, has concentrated on bringing some discipline to a notoriously individualistic and unbiddable party.
He wants to strengthen its organisation so that it can establish firm foundations. His emphasis appears to be on purifying the party rather than on keeping faith with traditional broad-church Ulster Unionism.
At Stormont now there are pro-union Assembly members from the DUP, the UUP, the UK Independence Party (Ukip), the Traditional Unionist Voice and whatever McCallister and McCrea call their new party when it is formally established later this spring – possibly around the 15th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, which they fully support.