All quiet on the Unionist front?

In his weekly column for the Irish Daily Star, John Coulter notes that the UUP failed to draw much more than half its delegates to the most recent meeting of the UUC. But, he wonders, what’s happening over at the unusually quiet headquarter of the DUP in East Belfast?

By John Coulter

With Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists trying to out-celebrate each other over the weekend, we are left still pondering – why is the DUP so quiet these days?

After all, the Shinners’ big shin-dig in Dublin has more to do with attempting to put the shine back onto their Southern electoral bandwagon as the crisis over the Northern Bank heist and the McCartney killing deepens on a daily basis.

SF founder Arthur Griffith must be lying in his coffin with a king-size migraine when he views the balls-up the present day leaders of Sinn Fein have made of his original separatist movement.

And as for the UUP, plenty of banqueting, praying, singing hymns, and fine speeches to commemorate how the Ulster Unionist Council has saved Ulster from Dublin rule over the last century.

It’s a pity that saving glory will only last until 5 May. Maybe that’s why only half the 900 plus UUC delegates attended Saturday’s centenary AGM. With all this internal strife in the republican family, and an electoral apocalypse looming for the UUC, is it any wonder the Paisley camp has decided to stay silent and bask in the glory of their opponents’ misfortunes.

Rumour has it, the Paisley camp is well and truly in electoral mode for 5 May … but the DUP is still nervous SF might throw a wobbly and orchestrate a huge act of public decommissioning complete with a portfolio of photos before the elections.

That would force the Paisleyites to show their hand at what they had really negotiated with the doves in SF before last year’s supposed ‘collapse’ of the peace deal.

With persistent rumours the DUP modernisers have conceded more to Dublin on cross-border bodies than Trimble did in the Good Friday Agreement, the last thing the DUP wants is SF to deliver on decommissioning before any General and council elections.

With ill health gossip now laid to rest, the Big Man and the fundamentalists are now firmly at the helm of the party, putting the Nigel Dodds campaign to succeed Paisley as DUP boss back on track. Peter Robinson and the modernisers have once more to take a back seat.

The social body language of the UUC celebrations clearly showed South Belfast Assemblyman Michael McGimpsey is the man of the moment amongst Ulster Unionists. Indeed, maybe the DUP will need an even bigger gun than Nigel’s wife, Diane Dodds, to prevent McGimpsey replacing Martin Smyth as South Belfast MP.

This could be a good time for the DUP’s man of the moment – MEP Jim Allister – to enter the fray as its South Belfast standardbearer. If he won, it would place him in prime position to take the DUP leadership itself.

Allister’s impressive vote in the 2004 Euro poll not only established his considerable credibility amongst the DUP rank and file, but also the private respect of many Right-wing Ulster Unionists.

This week, the UUP MLAs are holding an ‘away day’ in Templepatrick to discuss their future. Having met the SDLP last week, the big question is whether the UUP leadership will unveil a British Government document containing four possible proposals to end the impasse.

With the DUP proposal document already with the Secretary of State, the UUP is under pressure to give its council and Westminster candidates some policy direction on the doorsteps.

With disturbing reports of a potentially violent summer ahead – especially in north Belfast – there is pressure to get an interim arrangement as soon as possible after 5 May.

It is then hoped real negotiations can begin again in September, with the new deal in place by Christmas and the Assembly restored by January 2006 – just a year late!

But another question is still bugging many – why won’t the SDLP make the ideological jump and share power with unionists without SF being present, especially as the latter is hell bent on wiping out constitutional nationalism on 5 May?

First published in the Irish Daily Star on Monday 7th March 2005