Unionist Realignment

Many balk at the suggestion of a merger of the DUP and UUP into a single party. For most the single biggest issue was the ever present and ever divisive Ian Paisley. With Ian Paisley being the subject of a very internal coup, showing his weakness and irrelevance to the future, the two parties must now look seriously at the prospect of coming together. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, from the DUP perspective. Paisley was pushed. This can be said with some certainty because the reason behind the timing was so fundamentally flawed. How does the replacement of the ‘hard man’ of Ulster politics likely to save the DUP from Tradtiional Unionist Voice (TUV) led by ex-DUP Jim Allister MEP.

From a UUP perspective, hoping that voters will flood back to you because the others have arrived ten years too late is wishful thinking. There is nothing in the past year to make the electorate believe that voting UUP is a better bet – a better bet than what? Which is why a convergence of the two parties is almost inevitable.

The current signals from Sinn Fein indicate that it recognises the potential to be the largest party in any forthcoming election and taking the prized First Ministership. Sinn Fein has looked at the Dromore by-election and noted that where the DUP had previously swept the UUP off the board, the DUP did not achieve the vote it expected. They will have noted that the TUV took votes from both DUP and UUP. Which would suggest that in an election, the TUV would represent a significant minority voice and take a number of seat in the Assembly’s multimember constituency, PR election.

Widening the prespective, Sinn Fein anticipates that the failure of the Assembly to perform positively on any issue will impact much more negatively on Unionist parties than nationalist ones. They are probably right.

In recent months Sinn Fein has been markedly increasing its green rhetoric, and has been vociferous in blaming Unionists for lack of movement on issues close to the heart of its own constituency – reinforcing a victim mentality has always worked in the past.

A quiet summer will be more to do with tactics to convince Unionists of the safety in transfer of policing and justice than any sincere intention to resolve the parades issue.

Sinn Fein will most certainly not want to enter an election following Conor Murphy’s Ministry announcement of water charges – for which Sinn Fein will most certainly not be able to shift the blame. An election and Ministry reshuffle is about the only face-saving circumstance where Sinn Fein would allow itself to dump the disaster that is Catrina Ruane in Education.

There is every reason for Sinn Fein to see advantage in an election before the full term of this Assembly – sooner rather than later would no doubt be its preference.

For either the DUP or UUP to fail to perform as the largest party following an election would send Unionism into a tailspin of recrimination and self-doubt. Any groups emerging would be based on personality. The debate would focus on who has the biggest claim to be the leader of Unionism, when in fact no-one would be giving a lead at all.

Any suggestion that a DUP and UUP merger of some sort would provide a single Unionist Party is too late. Although the appeal of TUV is currently narrow and serves principally as a magnet for dissent, it has all the hallmarks of a credible political movement that will in time transform itself into a political force. There are now two Unionist groupings in Northern Ireland – those in the house and those without a key to the door, just yet.

In truth, there is now little political difference between the DUP and UUP, other than ego, personality, and history. With the departure of Ian Paisley there is no good reason to remain apart. Electorally, there is every good reason to join together.

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