Unionism is rapidly realigning

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THIS morning’s announcement of a new pro-Union party comes after a period of astonishingly rapid re-alignment within unionism.

It is less than a year since Mike Nesbitt was elected UUP leader while playing down any suggestion of closer links with the DUP. At that point Peter Robinson appeared utterly unassailable.

Now the UUP is jointly fighting an election with the DUP and Mr Robinson, deeply unpopular with Union Flag protestors, has said that he cannot go into some loyalist parts of his own constituency for fear of his bodyguards being attacked.

The flag protests have caused upheaval within political unionism, though ironically have changed nothing when it comes to their aim of returning the Union Flag to Belfast City Hall.

There are similarities between this new pro-Union party and the mid-1980s emergence of the economically and socially liberal Progressive Democrats — a party which ended up in government in Dublin before imploding — onto a political scene weary of the parties which had served the Irish state for decades.

The recent BBC Spotlight poll revealed extraordinary levels of unionist dissatisfaction with the three main unionist leaders. The most startling statistic from the poll showed that less DUP supporters think their party’s leader, Peter Robinson, has handled the flag crisis well than think that the unelected PUP leader Billy Hutchinson has handled the protests well.

Across the population, Mr Hutchinson found more support than Mr Nesbitt. The TUV’s support levels had barely changed from a low level.

Into such a political atmosphere, and at a time when the UUP is increasingly perceived as close to the DUP, Basil McCrea and John McCallister believe that they can carve out a new niche.

Jim Allister has shown them how difficult it can be to launch a new party. A man with enormous personal ability and whose political platform is well defined, he has made only a limited electoral impact, and now owns but a small niche of the unionist vote.

Central to this party’s success or failure will be the accuracy of recent polls which have suggested two crucial trends: a rapidly increasing number of pro-Union Catholics and a growing sense of a Northern Irish identity.

The two ex-Ulster Unionists are attempting to tap into both of those changes.

Similar radical moves have been tried before — most famously by the former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Brian Faulkner whose Unionist Party of Northern Ireland made little impact.

Northern Ireland has radically changed since then; but no one knows whether that means this new party could succeed where others have failed.