WHEN the News Letter examined unionist unity in 2010, a political earthquake seemed likely within unionism.
The flags crisis may yet be that earthquake.
There is already one schism within unionism, which happened in 2007 when Jim Allister left the DUP. It was the split between those who accept power-sharing with Sinn Fein and those who don’t.
But the earthquake that has not yet happened is between those keen on the traditional trappings of unionism (the Union Flag, social conservatism, the national anthem, Orangeism) and those who feel little attachment to such paraphernalia, even though they strongly want to stay in the UK.
Almost all the DUP are in the first group, and it seems that a majority of the Ulster Unionist Party are also traditionalists. Many UUP members who were not have already quit, such as Trevor Ringland, who joined the Tories. But there is still a large group within the UUP who are uncomfortable with that core traditional culture shared with the DUP.
And yet even many traditional unionists within the UUP, people who are politically close to the dominant moderate faction in the DUP, fear what they consider to be a once-great party being swallowed by the DUP.
Over the last week, Mike Nesbitt has faced a dilemma. Moderate unionists have recoiled from the flag protests. He was elected as a moderniser, but key members of his party are furious at the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall.
In a speech in September 2007, the southern Irish commentator Eoghan Harris told a UUP dinner that their party should join with the DUP to form a new one.
“Unionists would be in a stronger position in the Republic and the rest of the UK if both major unionist parties joined together in one formation,” he said.
If people such as Basil McCrea now leave the UUP, that outcome will move a step closer.