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Should unionism unite after this disastrous year?

Will 2010 be remembered as the year that was the making — or the breaking — of unionism.

On the face of it last week’s election results were disastrous for unionists of all shades. The TUV, which set itself up as the conscience of hardline unionism, found it was irrelevant.

The Ulster Unionists, who promised to break the mould of local politics through a formal alliance with the Conservatives — except when reverting to type by agreeing a compromise candidate in Fermanagh/South Tyrone in an opportunistic beat the nationalist attempt which backfired — certainly did create history.

For the first time ever the party ended up with no MPs. Sir Reg Empey, a decent man as opposed to a decent leader, really has nowhere to go except to resign. The decline of the Ulster Unionists may not be entirely his fault, but there is no point him hanging on until there is no one else to blame.

Peter Robinson’s position is much more complicated. The voters turned against him, but not his party. So the party has to decide if that will still be the case if another general election is called soon or when the polls open next year for the Assembly election. As it showed with Iris, the party can be utterly ruthless, and even if Peter Robinson is probably the most professional politician in the province, the DUP will ditch him in a trice if it thinks he is a liability.

Anyway, does he really want to continue as a wounded politician? Someone else, probably deputy leader Nigel Dodds, will lead the Westminster Party while Peter continues as First Minister and leader in the Assembly. Is that really a tenable position?

Maybe the party will take a long view and believe that Peter can win East Belfast back whenever the next poll takes place, but it would go against history for any unionist party to be forgiving.

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Given that the leaders of the two main unionist parties are in trouble, is there a chance of a single unionist leader emerging, a man or woman who could unite unionism?

There is no doubt that unionists of all shades are terrified by the continued rise and rise of Sinn Fein and the nationalist vote generally.

Three of Belfast’s seats have slipped out of traditional unionist hands and the fourth is being retained by an ever diminishing majority. Unionists cannot even win Fermanagh/South Tyrone on a split nationalist vote.

A united unionist party would be in a much stronger position overall, probably winning back South Belfast, staving off the nationalist threat in North Belfast, and having a decent shout again in East Belfast and North Down.

But who could lead unionism? There are suggestions that Arlene Foster could be the next leader of the DUP but Ulster Unionists have not forgotten that she dumped the party in 2003 to switch to the DUP. The same argument would rule out Jeffrey Donaldson. The Ulster Unionists will have difficulty finding a leader for their own party — never mind one who would command respect across unionism.

But there is one person who has shown the independence, the courage and — most importantly — the popular support to press a case for a leader of unionism. Step forward Lady Sylvia Hermon.

She is the sort of unionist even nationalists would vote for. Certainly unionism could do a lot worse.

In fact, if it continues to be divided, it will do a lot worse.


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