Unionist unity proposal ignites debate but also reveals wide differences
Former UUP deputy leader Danny Kennedy has urged "open and honest" talks over the prospects for unionist unity.
He was responding to DUP leader Arlene Foster's call for a renewed attempt to bring the pro-Union parties together.
Mr Kennedy, who was among six UUP MLAs who lost their seats in last week's Assembly election, said any talks should include the smaller unionist parties and loyalists.
"I think in the immediate aftermath of the election and the emotional reaction you would expect to hear the cry for unionist unity. It is not surprising given the trauma of the results," he said.
"I think we all would realise that there should be better co-operation within the house of unionism. The connecting doors, if you like, should be unlocked.
"There needs to be a conversation. That conversation needs to be an open and honest one. And it should not be about one larger party dominating the smaller one.
"No one will disagree with that, but the conversation would need to be on how it can be achieved as well as if it can be achieved."
The issue is back in the spotlight after a catastrophic election for unionist parties. The DUP finished just one seat in front of Sinn Fein, with the two separated by fewer than 1,200 votes.
In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph Mrs Foster called for a fresh attempt at unity, saying the election had to serve as a "wake-up" call for unionism.
She warned that her party's total vote in last Thursday's poll would not be enough to win the next election.
"Ideally, I would like to see a renewed attempt to create unionist unity where the parties would come together," Mrs Foster stated. "Failing that, we need to agree transfer pacts where unionists transfer down the ballot paper to each other."
Mr Kennedy represented Newry and Armagh, where for many years he was one of only two unionist MLAs, along with the DUP's William Irwin. He argued the DUP and Ulster Unionists were very different parties.
"The two largest unionist parties are structurally different. The Ulster Unionist Party is really a lose amalgamation of local associations spread across the province and the DUP really don't have that network of constituency associations or wider membership but are centralised, where the power rests with the central leadership and party officers.
"So we need to see what is possible rather than just sloganise. It would also require an openness and an honesty that, frankly, I have not seen in the last 25 years."
One of UUP's new MLAs, John Stewart, who was elected in East Antrim, said he did not believe unionist unity was possible. "I just don't see how it could ever happen. It is not in anybody's interest. I personally have no interest in seeing a single party at any stage," he said.
"It is not in the democratic interests of Northern Ireland because we would just have two blocks and every election would just be a headcount.
"It is good that people have a choice. We are the original unionist party, we were here when the state was established, and we are going to be around for a lot longer.
"I genuinely believe that if in the ridiculous event there ever was just one unionist party, then the very next day there would be another unionist party."
Independent Claire Sugden said rather than a merger, the only way for unionists to safeguard the Union was to "make Northern Ireland work".
The former Justice Minister said in the short-term unionists had "nothing to fear", but nationalists were "certainly putting their case forward" in terms of a united Ireland.
"Generally unionism is weakened, but it is not just the DUP which is to blame, but also in my view Mike Nesbitt," she said.
"And if I want to support equal marriage, how could I join the DUP?
"But if we had just one party and they failed as miserably as the DUP, what would we do then? We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket. How do we best safeguard the Union? It is by making Northern Ireland work."
Paul Berry, a former DUP politician turned independent councillor, said he was not advocating a single unionist party "but I do feel that at every election there is room for negotiation and agreement that will unite our people instead of spreading the vote so thinly on the ground between numerous candidates, especially in marginal constituencies".
"Surely there is more to unite unionism than there is to divide it, and I would urge key players to get around the table and start talking," he added.