CALLS for unionist unity received a dramatic response as a prominent SDLP figure called for nationalists to react with a single party of their own.
North Antrim SDLP Assemblyman Declan O'Loan said that a united nationalist party would be needed to counter calls for any united unionist party.
A move to merge the SDLP and Sinn Fein has not been seriously discussed until now and relationships between the two parties are often strained.
ANALYSIS: Unity poses a serious challenge for unionism
In a humiliating attempted U-turn just three hours after issuing his statement, Mr O'Loan tried to withdraw the comments.
It is understood that the husband of former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan received a furious dressing-down from senior SDLP staff, who were unaware of his statement, which said that "serious consideration needs to be given to the formation of a new single nationalist party in Northern Ireland".
He said: "Many nationalist voters are willing to exercise their votes interchangeably between the SDLP and Sinn Fein.
"Equally it is clear that there remains solid support for what the SDLP stands for, and that support is not going to change.
"Sinn Fein and the SDLP come from very different backgrounds. The SDLP has always been absolutely opposed to violence and believes that the IRA campaign held back the cause of Irish unity.
"The question now is what will best advance the interests of nationalist politics? I believe that a major realignment of northern nationalism is now called for, and I think that this means the formation of a new single nationalist party."
He added: "I have discussed the proposition of a new single nationalist party with the grassroots SDLP membership in North Antrim, including the councillors, and it was very strongly supported."
Sinn Fein Upper Bann Assemblyman John O'Dowd dismissed the call as "partitionist" because it called for an exclusively Northern Ireland party.
"At times the mixed messages coming from the SDLP on the issue of maximising nationalist representation are completely confusing," he said.
"During the recent election campaign Margaret Ritchie spurned talks on the issue and branded Sinn Fein efforts to broker cooperation as 'sectarian politics'. Now Declan O’Loan is seeking a single nationalist party.”
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who is a strong supporter of closer links between the DUP and UUP, welcomed Mr O’Loan’s comments, saying that it “demonstrates just how terrified the enemies of the Union are by the prospect of unionists coming together”.
He accused the SDLP, who accused unionists in Fermanagh/South Tyrone of sectarianism when they backed a single candidate, of “flagrant hypocrisy”.
“The DUP is encouraged that our opponents are so terrified by unionists coming together: for too long those who wanted to destroy the Union have been able to rely upon unionist division to aid them in their quest.”
He added: “The unionist electorate should take heart from the fact that our opponents are frightened of us coming together.”
Fermanagh UUP Assemblyman Tom Elliott said that the comments “perhaps show how close Declan O’Loan’s thinking is to that of Sinn Fein”.
And South Down UUP Assemblyman John McAllister repeated his party’s call for any unionist unity to be based on “shared values rather than merely short-term electoral considerations”.
He added: “In this context, many of us will be rather surprised by a senior SDLP figure calling for one nationalist party embracing the SDLP and Sinn Fein.”