The head of the Orange Order has said he believes there should be one united unionist party in Northern Ireland.
In a keynote speech in Co Antrim last night, Robert Saulters said there was a “huge groundswell of opinion” to drive towards unionist unity.
Calls for closer co-operation between the main unionist parties have grown since the General Election in which the UUP failed to win any seats and DUP leader Peter Robinson lost in his East Belfast constituency.
Speaking at the reopening of Lavin Orange Hall, Mr Saulters said: “Personally, I believe there should be one big unionist party which represents all the views that I hear. It must be a party that is big enough and modern enough to allow people with conflicting opinions to work together for the common purpose of maintaining the Union.”
The Grand Master of Ireland added: “I know it will not be easy. In fact it will be incredibly difficult and people will have to make concessions and set aside differences that have existed for a long time.
“The Orange Order has warned our unionist leaders that the time is right for intelligent and radical thinking about the way forward.
“As an institution, we stand ready to play our part – whatever that may be – in working towards a more cohesive unionist community and ultimately ensuring that the union is maintained for future generations. In the political battle to maintain the Union, there is no prize for coming second.”
Senior DUP and UUP figures last night backed Mr Saulters comments. Strangford UUP MLA David McNarry, who has long campaigned for unity between unionists, said he thinks it is attainable before the next Assembly elections.
“The big prize is unity. The Grand Master is clearly reading the mood of the great number of unionists on the ground. The prospect of unity would seem to be improving daily. His aspiration of a single party is an aspiration worth pursuing. It will only follow when there is actually a bond between the two unionist parties.”
“We need to get around the table and it needs to be built on strong principles and values. Everyone needs to be honest with each other. Hopefully given a fair wind and support from people such as the Grand Master, unity will not fail,” Mr McNarry said.
The DUP’s Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster also welcomed the Grand Master’s comments.
She said: “The election result demonstrated that those at Westminster and the NI Assembly could have greater representation through more unity. We believe that unionism is weakened when it is divided.”
Ms Foster’s party colleague Jeffrey Donaldson added: “The Grand Master is reflecting the growing mood — to see party unity, harmony and co-operation within unionism. I hope that in time this will be the way forward.”