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Northern Ireland's unionists face hard questions for future

Editor's Viewpoint

An electoral pact would seem the logical outcome to the unionists' poor showing in last week's election, but this may not be straightforward.

In today's Belfast Telegraph the DUP leader Arlene Foster calls for unity in the aftermath of what has been a watershed for all shades of unionism.

She underlines the narrow gap between her party and Sinn Fein, who are no longer incapable of topping the poll.

On the positive side, a unionist pact would take the electoral fight to their opponents while also maximising the unionists' focus on victory.

However, a unionist pact would give voters less choice, and some major figures would be asked to stand aside to give a clear run to unionist candidates in constituencies which they have a chance of winning.

There have been joint party pacts in the past, but with varying success.

There was a brief but unsustained UUP-PUP agreement at Stormont in 2006, and an Ulster Conservative and Unionists New Force was created in 2009, but disbanded in 2012.

One of the most successful electoral pacts was agreed in 2015, and this helped unionists to win three out of four seats which had been targeted at Westminster. In theory, there is a strong argument for unity, but achieving this would take courage and imagination, given the different ethos of the parties.

They would need to weigh up whether their different stands on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion would take precedence over their primary aim of defending the Union.

There is also a need for a stronger presentation of unionism, and this may require the appointment of a professional marketing expert .

It is difficult to believe that only a short time ago much was made of the concept of 'Northern Irish' and that some nationalists felt comfortable being in the UK.

That concept must continue to be a priority among unionists in the future, despite their many fall-outs.

Perhaps the only upside for unionists is that the election was a 'wake-up' call.

They need to ask themselves what is unionism's core purpose and its values, and how it can become an attractive product for a wider audience.

Above all, unionism must define itself not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes.

That is one of the best ways by which it can hope to move forward after such a disastrous setback.

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