Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Defectors are giving voters plurality of choice

There was an air of inevitability about the resignations of Basil McCrea and John McCallister from the Ulster Unionist Party.

This may have been precipitated partly by the selection of an agreed unionist candidate in the upcoming election for the Westminster seat in Mid Ulster, but the defections have been coming for a long time.

The main issue is whether or not the UUP can retain its distinctive image and policy if the party moves closer to the DUP. Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader, thinks it can, but Basil McCrea, John McCallister and others do not agree with him.

The defecting UUP members may try to form a more centrist unionist group at Stormont, and this would be welcome. This newspaper has long backed a plurality of choice in local politics, and it is time to move beyond the cosy all-party understandings which were part of the early working out of the Good Friday Agreement.

In stating this, the Belfast Telegraph is not opposing Nigel Lutton, the agreed unionist candidature to fight the election in Mid Ulster. However, it is disappointing to hear Mike Nesbitt talking about providing an agreed candidate which will reduce the election to another sectarian headcount.

It is clear that the UUP is in serious trouble, and people are wondering what will happen next. Certainly it is sad to watch what was once the most powerful party in Northern Ireland now in such disarray.

Under Mike Nesbitt's leadership the UUP is likely to continue to co-operate closely with the DUP, but it is hard to see how this will provide any form of plurality in unionist voting.

It is difficult to forecast what the future may hold, or if Mr Nesbitt will retain enough support as leader.

The history of the Unionist Party has been one of division down the years, and no more so than recently.

The battle is now well-advanced for the soul of the UUP, and if this fundamental dispute is not resolved in the foreseeable future, there may be no UUP left to lead.

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