Youthful unionist drops the bowler and pinstripes for a denim shirt

 

THE punter was poking fun at the unionist candidate. Pointing to the election rosette on the candidate's lapel, he asked him if had been competing in the Balmoral agricultural show. "What did you win?"

The candidate, Peter King, at 26 the youngest player on the UUP's team, took the ribbing well. In a blue denim shirt that" hangs out over his waist, he doesn't match the bowler hat and pinstriped suit stereotype. Nor does he wear an orange sash on the "Twelfth". He is not a member of the Orange Order and would favour "a less formal fink" between the order and the party.

An elderly man, assures the candidate of his support. "My generation has made a hash of it," the old man says. Warning the young man about the wiles of Perfidious Albion, he says "I don't trust them as far as I'd throw them.

On the main street of Antrim town, we meet a rival contingent led by the unionist dissident Robert McCartney. An exchange of banter ends with Mr McCartney's parting shot "Mr Molyneaux was a disaster who looked like a disaster Mr Trimble is a disaster who, looks like a success."

The constituency of South Antrim is about 80 per cent unionist. Mr King is the first name on the UUP list of candidates there, making his election a virtual certainty. A barrister, he is part of the new generation of unionists coming forward. Are they any different from their forebears?

Not on fundamentals there will be no u turns on the Union. But there is a difference of style and approach.

"The traditional unionist approach comes with a lot of sectarian and historical baggage," Mr King says. "As soon as they see a nationalist the automatic reaction is No Ulster says No, you can't have this, you can't have that. I believe very firmly that unionists and nationalists can live together in Northern Ireland."

He points out that there is "Catholic support out there for the Union" and feels the UUP should "tap into" that support. He was a student for several years in Manchester and London, cities that have very large Irish communities "They were in the United Kingdom and playing a full part in society at every level. It just struck me as amazing that their co-religionists and countrymen in Northern Ireland have such a problem with the UK."

There was no reason why Northern Ireland should have sectarian strife at all. "The Union is a pluralist, democratic and secular place everybody can be accommodated.

He has strong views about decommissioning. I'd have grave difficulties sitting down on day one with Sinn Fein if they haven't addressed the issue of their decommissioning and if they haven't made a confidence building gesture towards the unionist community, because at the end of the day we're going to the talks armed with nothing but our convictions and, hopefully, a very large electoral mandate."

He would have no problem with the former US senator Mr George Mitchell, playing "a constructive part" in the negotiating process. "He has shown in his report a very sound and deep understanding of our problems after a very short time in Northern Ireland."

Mr King says the new party leader, Mr David Trimble, has given a "big lease of life" to the UUP. "He's articulate, he has confidence in the Union he has confidence in our cause.

He describes John Hume as "a fine man" but worries that Hume's nationalism might prevent him from going "the extra mile" to reach an accommodation with unionism. "I hope I'm wrong."

He describes the Rev Ian Paisley as "the ghost at the banquet", but respects his honesty. But he believes the Paisley approach is not the correct one, "now that we're approaching the end game of our conflict".

Mr King is dismissive of the Hume Adams agreement, which others saw as launching the peace process. "The big agreement that's going to solve Northern Ireland's problem is going to be, Hume Trimble that's going to have far more importance than any Hume Adams caper.

After a relaxed canvass of Antrim town, Mr King travelled to Lisburn to help his party colleague, the UUP honorary secretary, Mr Jeffrey Donaldson, who is standing in the constituency of Lagan Valley.

Standing in the middle of a carnival at Wallace Park, Mr Donaldson was confident about the role of the new generation epitomised by Mr King "You will see a more vigorous and proactive unionism as a result of the new blood that is coming through."