ONLY Peter Robinson! Yes, only Peter Robinson could begin a speech on unionist unity with the words, "our willingness to work closely with other unionists, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party, was evident for all to see in past decades." And, from what I can gather, he managed to say it with a straight face.
Yet if he believes it to be true why did he also say that "many a harsh word has been exchanged between our parties. This has led to mistrust and will take time to overcome."? I mean, why would there be the present level of mistrust between the parties if the DUP's willingness to work closely with others was so evident? Could it have something to do with the fact that Ian Paisley labelled every UUP leader from O'Neill onwards as a 'traitor', 'Lundy', 'Judas' or 'Quisling'?; could it be something to do with the fact that Peter Robinson constantly referred to the UUP as the party of 'weak-kneed, roll-over unionism'?; or could it be something to do with the fact that the DUP's propaganda wing (headed by Robinson) spent decades launching salvo after salvo of abuse at the UUP?
Fermanagh/South Tyrone was lost to Sinn Fein in 2001 because the DUP, which had never held the seat, decided to support a third-party candidate rather than the UUP's James Cooper. South Belfast was lost to the SDLP in 2005 because the DUP decided to field a candidate for the first time since 1983. So Robinson's claims about the efforts to endorse 'agreed' candidates a few weeks ago ring just a little bit hollow in my ears.
Unionism, collectively, was weakened when the DUP left the inter-party negotiations in the summer of 1997, yet still managed to take seats and ministerial office when the Assembly and Executive (along with salaries and expenses) was established. Unionists are now in danger of losing the office of first minister to Sinn Fein because of the utter stupidity of the DUP at St Andrews.
Peter Robinson mentions some of the common values 'held between the UUP and DUP'. One is a commitment to 'making the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive work'. It doesn't seem all that long ago that the DUP wanted to wreck that Assembly and Executive. He talks about upholding the commitment to 'power-sharing with nationalists'. Again, it doesn't seem all that long ago since he vowed to derail any process which put Sinn Fein into the government of Northern Ireland.
The DUP legacy is one of relentless negativity, division, abuse and stunts – culminating, in May 2007, with the abandonment of every principle, pledge and position it had adopted between 1971 and 2005. No new agreement; no better deal; no 'keeping Sinn Fein locked out of power'. And not one word of apology from either Dr Paisley or Peter Robinson for the sheer hell they put unionism through in order that they could get themselves into the top dog spot. So if anyone could give me a convincing reason why the UUP should now take seriously Peter's latest overtures, I would love to hear it!
Mr Robinson describes his latest wheeze as a 'unity of added potential, not a unity of necessity'. Yet the truth is that both the UUP and DUP are losing votes separately, so I'm not convinced that they could increase votes together. Where is the evidence that you can increase votes if you decrease the choice available to the electorate: where is the evidence that 'agreed' candidates would maximise votes and seats?
It didn't work for UCUNF and it didn't work for DUP/UCUNF/TUV in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. It's not the absence of unity which is turning off the unionist electorate, it's the absence of a policy platform and political agenda which engages them and offers the real prospect of some sort of follow-through.
The other difficulty with unionist unity (DUP-UUP style) is this: how do you create a vehicle which can accommodate the soaking wet, all-things-to-all-people turquoise liberalism of a Basil McCrea and that wing of the DUP which regards Roman Catholics as followers of the anti-Christ and some of whose Executive ministers believe that the dinosaur and Orange Order can trace their roots to the same common era?
How do you square the views of those who believe that the Orange Order has a pivotal part to play in unionist politics, with those who regard the Order as promoters of sectarian, divisive beliefs? How do you settle those, like me for instance, who view the 'shared future' doctrine as a trap for putting unionism and republicanism on an equal footing (to use David Cameron's term), and those – mostly in the UUP as it happens – who believe that unionism and republicanism should come closer together?
As the UUP has known for a very long time, and as the DUP has begun to discover since 2007, 'big tents' are difficult to control. So, in my opinion, a DUP-UUP pact – which would probably get a nod of approval from the Orange Order and the TUV – would lead to a decrease rather than an increase in the unionist vote. The pro-Union community is a broader and much more complex beast than some DUP/UUP strategists imagine and it won't be manipulated into doing what it doesn't want to do. It didn't, for instance, buy into the UUP-Conservative project.
Peter Robinson needs a 'big idea' to keep him at the helm of the DUP. And there are people in the UUP looking for a credible exit strategy from the UCUNF debacle. It is quite clear that there have been ongoing talks between a Robinson cabal and a UUP cabal and that those talks are aimed at some sort of deal in the run-up to Assembly and council elections in 2011. Yet this strikes me as short term, tunnel-visioned, self-interested thinking. Yes, there are huge challenges ahead for both the DUP and UUP (not least the UUP's need to elect a leader who isn't a caretaker, careerist or celebrity), but attempts to shunt them closer together will, I suspect, merely damage them separately as well as collectively.
Unionism and unionists have many questions and problems which need addressed and resolved. There is a need for a very wide-ranging debate on the political and electoral future of unionism: but it seems to me that any move towards a DUP-UUP pact will prove to be a very dangerous distraction rather than a thought-out, long-term solution.