THE chances of the Ulster Unionists and DUP forming a pact or even merging – a prospect given impetus when Peter Robinson and Sir Reg Empey both suffered electoral setbacks – now appear to be receding.
The DUP has said that Mr Robinson has its full support to remain as leader and now Sir Reg is to remain in post for about five months.
For there to be any realistic chance of unity, fresh leaders will almost certainly be required.
DUP supporters have little time for Sir Reg, an architect of the Good Friday Agreement, and Ulster Unionists recall Peter Robinson's
attempts to annihilate their party.
On top of that Sir Reg and two other Ulster Unionists are currently locked in legal dispute and could end up in court with Mr Robinson over a reference the DUP leader made to him during his interview with the BBC's Seamus McKee.
Supporters of unity concede that any pact for the Assembly elections – essentially to stop Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister – would have to be concluded long before the election to convince voters with any sort of unified message.
Otherwise it would risk being a repeat of the Rodney Connor failure in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where the unionist unity candidate was selected just weeks ahead of the election. That saw 1,625 less voters back the unity candidate than backed the separate DUP and UUP candidates five years ago.
However, some Ulster Unionists are hopeful that the Conservatives will change the St Andrews legislation which now makes it possible for Sinn Fein to take the First Minister's position.
With the ear of Prime Minister David Cameron and Secretary of State
Owen Paterson, they believe that it may be possible to return to the original rules of the Good Friday Agreement which stated that the
First Minister came from the largest political designation – which is clearly unionist.
But if that does not happen it will face a formidable challenge from the DUP on the doorsteps in next year's election.
As one UUP figure admitted: "We will be saying 'It's the DUP's fault McGuinness can be First Minister because they changed the rules'. But they will be saying 'We are the only ones who can stop him being First
Minister', and that is very appealing."
On Saturday Sir Reg said he believed that next year's election could be "a sectarian headcount the like of which we have never seen before" if the issue is not settled.
The UUP leader and other party figures – even some of those supportive
of a pact – were sceptical about its chances of success.
Asked whether there would be a place for TUV leader Jim Allister within a single unionist party, Sir Reg said: "This is the problem with unionist unity – if your views go from the right of the TUV to the left of the PUP, how can everyone's views get into that room and it not just be a tribal thing?
"If you simply force people together because of some tribal thing it would already contain the seeds of its own destruction."
Whatever it eventually decides on the issue of unity, if the UUP is not to repeat the mixed messages of the last election campaign, it will
have to decide firmly whether it is for or against a pact with the DUP, rather than toying with both positions.