SELECTION of a unionist ‘unity’ candidate to contest the Mid Ulster Westminster by-election has received the approval of both the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party, but the move to back Co Armagh victims’ activist Nigel Lutton comes at a cost to the UUP.
Assembly members Basil McCrea and John McCallister have resigned from the UUP in protest at their party’s alignment in this instance with the DUP and the two men may either form a new liberal unionist party or operate as independents at Stormont.
This has clearly weakened the UUP, with Assembly strength now reduced to 13 from 16 since the last election, but leader Mike Nesbitt insists they remain a cohesive unit at Stormont, with meaningful support from 100 party councillors across the Province.
Formal unionist unity with the DUP is certainly not a UUP option, maintains Mr Nesbitt, and opposite number Peter Robinson is also not of a mind to forego his party’s independence.
Since the unionist monolith broke up in the late 1960s, the pro-Union vote in successive polls, due to party rivalry and divisions, has failed to maximise the representation that it is entitled to at Westminster, Stormont and on district councils.
And whatever dissenting voices may argue, unionist co-operation is highly popular at grassroots level, particularly West of the Bann and in marginal constituencies.
For a unionist to triumph in Mid Ulster would take a major seismic shift in republican/nationalist voting patterns, but, with the backing of all shades of unionism, Nigel Lutton is well placed to seriously challenge Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy as a candidate of legitimate standing and authority.