FORMER Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister has hit back at Peter Robinson’s criticisms of his anti-unionist unity speech that led to him being sacked by Mike Nesbitt.
The First Minister criticised the former UUP deputy’s claim that the UUP was in danger of “sleepwalking into unionist unity”, something Mr Robinson said was “nonsense”.
In a weekend speech, the DUP leader said that the UUP leader was right to sack Mr McCallister for the speech and said that the South Down MLA’s assessment of the state of unionism was “fundamentally misguided”.
But Mr McCallister said that Mr Robinson did not want unionists to have a choice of pro-Union parties to vote for.
He told the News Letter: “Rather than choice and change, the First Minister proposed a return to the politics of the past.
“Attempting to invoke the spirit of 1912 – United we stand, divided we fall – Peter Robinson strangely brings us back to unionism’s darkest hour.
“In 1912, we stood on the very edge of the Union. Westminster was preparing to drive the north-east of Ireland out of the UK. A narrow nationalism prepared to dominate a Home Rule parliament. That is why unionists set aside their differences to unite against the threat of Home Rule.
“A century on, we are in a very different context. Cross-community support for the Union is strong. The institutions at Stormont are supported by nationalist and unionist. Dublin is a partner rather than an aggressive neighbour.
“A recent speech in Dublin described the changed context: ‘Now that a settlement has been reached and the threat has gone we have entered a new political era’. Ironically, those are the words of Peter Robinson himself.
“So which is it? Is it 1912 with unionism under siege or is it a ‘new political era’ in which the constitutional position is settled? Of course, it’s a new and very changed political era which should allow confident pro-Union opinion to embrace a normalisation of our politics. But Peter Robinson is fearful of this.”
Mr McCallister said that the absence from Mr Robinson’s speech of a call for a Stormont Opposition was a “stunning omission”, something he argued was based on Mr Robinson’s “fear of normalised politics”.
Mr McCallister, who campaigned strongly in the UUP’s leadership election in March to take the UUP immediately into Opposition at Stormont but lost overwhelmingly to Mr Nesbitt, said that Stormont “needs an Opposition to hold the Executive to account and to give voters authentic choice”.
He added: “Peter Robinson prefers instead to offer the dated, tired vision of unionism circling the wagons rather than bringing real change to our politics and institutions.
“A similar complacency is seen in his boast that civic unionism has a home in the DUP. Just how hollow this boast is, can be seen in the failure of the DUP to embrace the range of opinions among pro-Union voters when it comes to difficult matters of conscience.
“The UUP rightly offers a free vote to its members on such issues. The DUP insists, however, on a party line, reflecting a narrow approach which fails to reflect the range of opinions among pro-Union voters.
“Alongside this – and coinciding with the DUP’s electoral victories – has been the collapse in political participation among pro-Union voters.”
Mr Robinson has said that he does not want a ‘tribal’ form of unity, as Mr McCallister claimed, but one which “reaches out and grows support for the Union beyond its traditional base”.
But Mr McCallister said that “further restricting the choice in our politics by entrenching tribalism through ‘unionist unity’ is not going to encourage the participation of those already alienated pro-Union voters”.
He added: “Having moved the DUP from harsh anti-power-sharing rhetoric to governing in partnership with Sinn Fein, we might have hoped that Peter Robinson would seek to move unionism and Northern Ireland beyond sterile tribal politics.
“Instead, he proposes to freeze our politics into unionist versus nationalist tribalism, with no ability for the voters to choose between a government and an Opposition.”