A NEW pro-Union party is to be formed by John McCallister and Basil McCrea, as unionism explores yet another electoral possibility.
Writing in today’s News Letter, the two MLAs – who quit the UUP a fortnight ago over the selection of a unionist unity candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election – confirm that they will set up what will be the first new unionist party since the TUV emerged more than five years ago.
Dismissing suggestions that they may join the Alliance Party or the Conservatives, both men make clear that they will instead form a “confident, generous, progressive pro-Union party”.
Today’s article sets out a vision for “a party committed to the values enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and determined to provide a credible alternative to the current political stalemate” and “where religious persuasion should not define political beliefs”.
Last night Mr McCrea, who is likely to be the new party’s leader, told the News Letter that the party may not have the word “unionist” in its name.
“We don’t need to put unionist in the name to declare that Northern Ireland is best served in the Union,” the Lagan Valley MLA said.
“We don’t need to wrap ourselves in the flag but intend to offer a party based around a Northern Irish identity for people who want to see progress within the context of the values set out in the Belfast Agreement.”
And Mr McCallister said that his decision had been crystalised in his mind after reading UUP leader Mike Nesbitt’s interview with the News Letter last week in which he argued that policies don’t swing voters and described as “quite an extraordinary assertion” the suggestion that voters may vote based on issues other than the constitutional question.
Mr McCallister said: “Whether judged by their Mid Ulster decision to drive Northern Ireland politics back into the sectarian trenches, or by the view of the UUP leader that politics here is nothing more than a orange versus green headcount, both the UUP and DUP have abandoned any realistic claim to represent progressive pro-Union politics.”
Citing the recent BBC Spotlight poll which showed unprecedented levels of support for the Union among both Roman Catholics and Protestants across Northern Ireland, Mr McCallister said: “It is a time for a confident, generous, progressive pro-Union movement to reach out and build support for the modern Union and Northern Ireland’s place within it.”
The party will join the DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, Conservative Party and UKIP, bringing to seven the number of pro-Union political parties contesting elections in the Province.
Last night independent unionist MLA David McClarty – who had expressed interest in joining with Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister – said that he would not be joining the new party.
Mr McClarty said that he told Mr McCallister at the weekend that he had decided after “a lot of thought, heart-searching, talking to family and friends and constituents” that he would stay as an independent unionist.
“I have to respect the wishes of the people who elected me,” he said.
“Whilst I would support the stance of the two gentlemen and probably will cooperate with them in the future, I stood as an independent unionist and I will remain as an independent unionist.”
However, Mr McClarty did not rule out standing for the new party at the next Assembly elections, which the East Londonderry MLA said he intends to contest.
“During the coming two years I will be consulting and finding out from my constituents what they wish. Do they want to see us heading towards a unionism which is open, which is pluralist and which is accepting of all?”
Meanwhile, Banbridge’s seven Ulster Unionist councillors have issued a statement saying they are “very disappointed” at the “unwelcome distraction” of Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister quitting the UUP.
They supported the unionist unity move in Mid Ulster as “a necessary step” and insisted that it did not mean that the UUP was about to “merge” with the DUP.
Mid Ulster MLA Jo-Anne Dobson also described the resignations as “disappointing”.
She said: “There are times when the country and the Union need to be put before the party and self. It is clear that in taking his decision John does not agree with this principle.
“I am confused by John’s decision as this is not the first time a joint candidate has been chosen in the best interests of maximising the overall unionist vote.”