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With a March election on the cards, Unionism looks set for another realignment with former political foes joining forces to back the St Andrews Agreement. Political journalist and Revolutionary Unionist Dr John Coulter explores the planned coalition.


Dr John Coulter • 15 November 2006

Supporters of the St Andrews Agreement in Ian Paisley's DUP and Reg Empey's Ulster Unionists look likely to form an election pact to outgun the threat from anti-deal dissident unionists.

It seems certain the Northern electorate will be able to deliver their verdict on the Scottish Agreement with an Assembly election on Wednesday 7 March, 2007 with all 108 Stormont seats up for grabs.

With political brinkmanship the order of the day, the countdown is also well underway to the so called Super Friday – 24 November – the date Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness have to be nominated as First and Deputy First Minister to a 'shadow' Assembly.

Northern Secretary Peter Hain has already strongly 'marked the cards' of the political parties by emphasising the choice on Super Friday is between devolution or dissolution.

The Assembly will be axed within days if the parties fail to nominate, paving the way for joint authority of the North by Dublin and London.

However, some Unionist sources were also indicating Hain could be persuaded to extend the deadline into early December if a planned Sinn Fein ard fheis could guarantee republican support for policing.

But the sources were also suggesting the DUP chief will play political hardball, both with Sinn Fein for a pro-PSNI strategy as well as go head-to-head with dissidents within his own camp. In spite of the increase in scepticism from the DUP, Paisley is still expected to be nominated as First Minister.

Ironically, in spite of repeated electoral batterings from the Paisley camp since the turn of the new millennium, the Ulster Unionists are now at their most united as a party since the David Trimble era talks which produced the original Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.

Usually reliable Unionist sources said the UUP's three consultation meetings in Belfast, Ballymena and Dungannon were “very tame affairs” compared with similar reportedly hot tempered meetings of the DUP's grassroots.

It has been also suggested a DUP consultation meeting in Lurgan showed 90 delegates in favour of accepting St Andrews, 40 against with another 40 abstentions. This has fuelled persistent rumours the Paisley camp is divided almost 50/50 with the pro-deal supporters around party boss Paisley Senior, and supposed dissidents backing popular MEP Jim Allister.

Unionist sources claimed there had already been “private talks” aimed at re-establishing the 1970s-style United Ulster Unionist Council, or Unionist Coalition, to field agreed pro-deal candidates in future Assembly and Westminster elections.

Anti-deal Unionists have already threatened to run candidates under the banner of North Down barrister and MLA Robert McCartney's fringe United Kingdom Unionist Party.

There have even been allegations Paisley Senior's nomination on 24 November could trigger resignations from the DUP on a scale experienced during the walkout by UUP dissidents loyal to the Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson during his long-running battle with Trimble.

There have also been suggestions Allister could quit the DUP and establish a Right-wing, anti-deal grassroots Unionist party along with McCartney. It has also been alleged Newry and Armagh Independent Unionist MLA Paul Berry could be asked to join the new anti-deal coalition.

However, Unionist sources also claimed the UUP was "highly unlikely" to entertain the prospect of a 'what we have, we hold' electoral pact with the Paisleyites. The sources suggested a pro-deal coalition would only be formed on a 50/50 seat basis, which would mean the DUP having to give up some of its Westminster seats to the Ulster Unionists.

At present, Unionist hold 10 of the North's 18 Commons seats. The DUP has nine, the UUP one. Agreed single Unionist candidates could see two further seats – South Belfast, and Fermanagh/South Tyrone – return to Unionist control, giving a supposed pro-deal Unionist alliance of a dozen seats.

But this would mean six seats going to the Paisley camp, with the UUP taking the remaining half-dozen. In practical terms, the DUP would have to give up three seats.

In the Assembly, the sources claimed the long-term aim of any pro-deal pact would be to amass 70 of the present 108 seats, there by paving the way for a possible return of majority rule Unionist government in the North.

This situation has not existed since the original Stormont Parliament was axed in March 1972. The source claimed 70 seats had been identified where agreed pro-deal Unionist candidates could win – 35 to the DUP, 35 to the UUP.

However, it was also suggested a formal merger of the two parties would not occur under the current Paisley leadership. At this point, the best which could be hoped for was agreed pro-deal coalition candidates, the sources said.

The sources also indicated David Ervine of the Progressive Unionists, the party aligned to the UVF and Red Hand Commando, would have to run as an agreed UUP candidate and the PUP would have to be dissolved.

The 70-seat Assembly pact also works on the assumption dissident Unionists or the revamped Northern Tories would not field candidates, thereby splitting the pro-Union vote.



Read Dr John Coulter's If You Ask Me from this week's BBC Hearts & Minds.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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19 November 2006

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