Belfast Telegraph

Will fight to lead UUP give the real crown to Sinn Fein?

Only unionist unity can stop Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister, says Alan Murray

Basil McCrea hasn't endeared himself to the Ulster Unionist Party hierarchy and the bookies will give you good odds on his chances of succeeding Sir Reg Empey.

That this Saturday's Ulster Unionist Party Executive meeting is being held in Fermanagh is surely another pointer that Tom Elliott and not Basil McCrea is the hierarchy's favourite to follow Sir Reg as leader.

The Fermanagh farmer has been hailed as the next Unionist Party leader since before the party's disastrous General Election performance. It's against this tide of anticipation that Basil McCrea and his supporters are swimming to try to convince the Unionist Party membership that he is the man for the job. He is receiving support in the leafy-laned unionist environments such as North Down and support among the rank and file is growing.

A supposed shoo in, Elliott is from that school of traditional Unionist Party stock which views a link with the Orange Order as no embarrassment. Yet he has warned the unionist community of the dangers of becoming the equivalent of Sinn Fein's 'ourselves alone' and has chided the DUP for eschewing the chances of a closer link with the Conservatives.

Basil McCrea, on the other hand, has blasted the tie-up with the Tories and blames it for his party's poor performance in May.

McCrea could become pigeon holed with that 'little Ulsterman' profile that Elliott warned would not serve the best interests of unionism if he continues his opposition to David Cameron having a committed interest in Ulster politics.

The conundrum for Elliott, if he assumes the mantle of leader, is how he balances the link with the Conservatives alongside what his key supporter Danny Kennedy sees is a need for an electoral pact with the DUP to avert a political crisis at Stormont next year.

That crisis, of course, is the one blithely engineered by the DUP at St Andrews in 2006 which, through a Bill in the Commons that November, bestowed to the largest single party in the Assembly the coveted role of First Minister.

The sectarian maths is pretty simple: if Sinn Fein becomes the largest single political party next May, then Martin McGuinness can become First Minister and that will happen barring an unforeseeable and unimaginable collapse in Sinn Fein's vote. Constructing one single unionist party to avert the McGuinness accession before next May is equally unforeseeable and unimaginable given the political differences and the personalities involved.

The Tories would be mighty peeved if Tom Elliott became Deputy Leader to Peter Robinson in a new political party entity. David Cameron couldn't stomach it and neither would many traditional Unionist Party supporters.

The respite from tribal politics that was provided in May when we became briefly more focused on the reality of our dependency on Britain to pay the bills will fade into the mists of political time if the Assembly elections become just a battle to prevent McGuinness triumphing.

If Elliott doesn't want unionism to crawl into a sectarian shell he must lead the party away from the 'little Ulsterman' syndrome which would burn the bridges established with the Conservatives. He knows that forming an official alliance with the DUP would ignite that bonfire.

Both Elliott and McCrea are sending mixed signals to their electorate. McCrea appears to dislike the Tory link but could he stomach a formal DUP link? Elliot appears to want to preserve the Tory link but would like to embrace the DUP in some formal capacity at the Assembly elections.

One of them will have to provide cogent leadership to expand our political outlook beyond the 'little Ulsterman' cocoon - it's probably too late to stop McGuinness now.

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