Plans for new party may fall into credibility gap
The embryonic new unionist grouping opposed to Stormont's power-sharing regime has important tests fo face, Political Correspondent Noel McAdam reports
The debate is on. But the direction is less clear. And as for the final destination... After months of rumblings, the first public steps towards a potential new party within unionism have been taken and the weeks ahead will demonstrate whether the grouping is a runner.
They have serious issues to face. Any political party needs significant resources, not least financial, and a workable structure, as well as a core consensus on what exactly it is about.
The most challenging test any new unionist grouping must face, however, is connecting with the massive numbers of stay-at-home voters. This will require the development of mature policies, not just the ya-boo-sucks of negative politics.
Many of the best-known faces who turned up at Moygashel Orange Hall on Wednesday night have already faced the electorate, and failed. It is a fact which won't have fallen below the radar screen at DUP headquarters which also takes heart from the recent firm rejection by the electorate of Bob McCartney's United Kingdom Unionists.
But Jim Allister, the most senior unionist figure involved in the grouping, insists all options are being kept open and the meeting in Moygashel was much more constructive than the usual venting of spleen.
"You need to walk before you can run," Allister told the Belfast Telegraph. "I would have thought it would be necessary to identify and assess the options first and then look and see which are the better options.
"I am not saying where that is leading at the moment." Or how long it might take to work out.
But the MEP - who would have to stand down to fight a General Election, should Prime Minister Gordon Brown decide to go to the country early - confirmed a number of other meetings are taking place in the weeks ahead.
Part of the discussions appear to centre on whether a formal party should be established or a less formal committee or pressure group, at least at this stage, to act as a focal point until the strength of dissent, and a viable strategy for the way ahead, emerge.
For behind the general consensus that "something must be done", there appears to be little agreement emerging on exactly what form that might take.
As the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson has pointed out, the history of unionism is littered with breakaway, splinter and pressure groups, such as Vanguard which emerged from James Chichester Clarke and Brian Faulkners Ulster Unionists and in turn spawned the United Ulster Unionist Party involving Ernie Baird - none of whose 12 candidates were returned in the 1982 Assembly election.
But some of those involved in the current grouping point to the likely emergence of an electoral pact, at least in some areas, between Jeffrey's present and former parties, with some talk even of an eventual merger.
One of the most likely areas for debate, then, is whether the will and means exist for what could become an effective opposition - and whether that could be effective under the current D'Hondt regime without forming a party.
There appear to be as many variations on this as there are people prepared to speak, even off-the-record. "We have to find support among the garden-centre unionists," one said. "If we are too strident, too much of the tired old 'No' thing, it will just put them off."
Another former DUP source said, however: "I don't think there is the basis, or the resources, for a formal party at this stage. I think it more likely a looser structure, perhaps a committee or pressure group, will be set up, at least for now."
But a third councillor who resigned from the DUP in recent weeks said: "I don't see the point unless a party is established, a voice for what I describe as traditional unionism.
Another source argued: "It needs a more major figure, not just a local councillor, but someone say from Assembly level to give any new breakaway party real credibility."