PETER Robinson has said that Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt was right to sack his deputy John McCallister for a speech in which he attacked unionist unity.
The DUP leader devoted an entire speech at the weekend to rebutting Mr McCallister’s anti-unity speech for which he was removed as deputy leader.
Speaking at the weekend to the DUP’s Blackwater Branch annual dinner, the First Minister said that the recent Ulster Covenant celebrations were “a demonstration of what can be achieved by unionist co-operation”.
He said that the section of Mr McCallister’s speech which angered Mr Nesbitt – where Mr McCallister said that a series of joint UUP-DUP initiatives had given the impression that the UUP was “sleepwalking into unionist unity” – was wrong.
Mr Robinson said: “The language of ‘sleepwalking’ conveys the impression of a great threat of what was for around half of the last century the norm within unionism.
“But what I really take exception to is the way in which those who are most opposed to co-operation in the Ulster Unionist Party seek to characterise the debate.
“Mike Nesbitt sacked John McCallister as deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Assembly Party for claiming that he was sleepwalking into unionist unity. He would have been equally entitled to have sacked him for just talking nonsense.”
Mr Robinson has in the past said that he would ultimately like to see a single unionist party, something that many in the UUP and DUP founder Ian Paisley oppose.
In his weekend speech, Mr Robinson expanded on his speech to the joint UUP-DUP dinner in which he said that as a single unionist party was unachievable in the near future there should therefore be incremental steps towards greater intra-unionist cooperation.
“Much as I would like to see it in the longer term, they were not however the first steps towards the formation of one unionist party,” Mr Robinson said.
“I made this clear last week when I called for greater co-operation between unionists.
“The Ulster Unionist Party, regardless of who the leader has been at any given time, has made their position clear on that issue.
“They are perfectly entitled to take this position and I respect their right to do so.”
Mr Robinson said that Mr McCallister’s assessment of the state of unionism was “fundamentally misguided” and said that the south Down MLA’s claim that ‘the prospect of ‘unionist unity’ represents a profound betrayal and rejection of the values of the Covenant’ was something which “requires not a selective reading of history, but the complete rewriting of it”.
“John’s view of unionist unity is not one that the unionists who stood together to oppose the Anglo Irish Agreement after 1985 would recognise,” said Mr Robinson.
“And his description of the role of the Ulster Unionist Party in the history of the state of Northern Ireland is not one that many impartial analysts would comprehend either.
“I say without criticism or value judgment that John’s description of the UUP as ‘liberal and pluralist’ are not descriptions that most would consider best characterise the Ulster Unionist Party.”
Mr Robinson also rejected Mr McCallister’s claim that unionist unity would “permanently entrench” tribalism and said that it was the Assembly’s designations – where every MLA has to register as unionist, nationalist or ‘other’ – which “do more than anything else to entrench tribalism”.
He added: “The unionist unity I want is one that reaches out and grows support for the union beyond its traditional base.”