News Letter’s political correspondent Sam McBride gives his analysis of the first meeting of the Unionist Forum.
PETER Robinson said that yesterday’s meeting of the Unionist Forum was “the most representative group in the unionist community to meet in half a century”.
He was recalling a period when, 50 years ago in 1963, Terence O’Neill had just taken over as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, the Orange Order was a part of the UUP and single unionist candidates sometimes were not even opposed in elections.
In those days, nationalist opposition at Stormont was almost irrelevant, rendered so by a combination of republican abstentionism, a smaller nationalist population than today and in some cases the gerrymandering of boundaries.
In the years to follow, the comfortable unionist monolith would be rocked and split, not least by the street politics of a middle-aged clergyman called Ian Paisley.
While yesterday’s Stormont meeting was in some ways remarkable – bringing together the leader of the UDA, the Orange Order, and unionist political representatives whose personal dislike of each other is in some cases intense – there is little else about today’s political situation which resembles that of 1963.
One of those present yesterday described the meeting as “a bit dull” and little was agreed other than a decision to set up eight working groups.
If the forum can deliver to the satisfaction of even 90 per cent of unionism (the most liberal wing of unionism represented by the likes of Basil McCrea and John McCallister was conspicuously absent yesterday) it will be quite an achievement.
Relationships across the unionist divisions have been softening for more than a year now and the first test of those more cordial relations will be next month’s Mid-Ulster by-election: will parties which are working together in the Unionist Forum stand against each other or seek to agree a joint candidate?
As unionists were meeting yesterday, Alasdair McDonnell was meeting with Martin McGuinness to “discuss the current political situation”.
The SDLP said that it was part of a series of meetings which Dr McDonnell has been having with all of the Stormont leaders and that it was not a reaction to the Unionist Forum.
Nevertheless, the image of separate pan-unionist and pan-nationalist meetings perhaps give us a glimpse of the place to where politics here may be moving.
Many of those involved in the Unionist Forum have no intention of entrenching tribal politics and certainly would not want to boost Sinn Fein’s vote.
Yet history shows that whenever there is unity among either unionism or nationalism, the other side also coalesces around its strongest standard bearer.
Most recently in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster election in 2010, the candidature of unionist unity man Rodney Connor (who came within a whisker of winning) saw nationalist voters stampede towards Sinn Fein.
No one knows what the Unionist Forum will achieve – frank exchanges behind closed doors could sharpen pro-Union ideas or as a body with no power to make decisions it could end up doing little more than identifying the problems but arguing about the solutions.
But, with a UUP which appears increasingly willing to get closer to the DUP, it may kick-start an unstoppable move towards some form of unionist unity; and with it push nationalism along a similar path.