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Now is the moment to sharpen up or be left behind

By Liam Clarke

Published 24/01/2012

Unionist politicians often report calls for unity on the doorsteps but, going by recent experience, voters like diversity.

Tom Elliott said as much when DUP boss Peter Robinson advocated closer links.

"I have always questioned whether or not a single party would deliver the required electoral success for unionism," UUP leader Mr Elliott said.

Northern Ireland has changed. The ending of the IRA's war, the removal of the republic's constitutional claim over Northern Ireland and Sinn Fein's acceptance of a political way forward have all contributed to new confidence in the unionist community.

People are looking for politicians who can talk about bread and butter issues and offer a choice at election times - being sound on the constitutional issue is no longer enough.

The DUP has responded by moving towards the centre.

In contrast, the UUP has struggled to reinvent itself.

Without a clear vision it risks being absorbed by some other party - whether the Tories, the DUP or a mixture of both.

The UUP and SDLP were distinguished as the parties of the peace process - their leaders even won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nobody can live on past glories forever, and no party can survive in the long term unless it is able to project an identity which offers voters a clear alternative to its competitors.

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