Amid attempts to engineer unionist unity, outgoing Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has denounced the DUP as a party which “endangers our future”.
In his final speech to his party’s ruling executive on Saturday, Mr Nesbitt set out a view of the UUP’s larger unionist rival which is not in keeping with some of his party colleagues, who want to see the two parties move much closer together.
Less than two years ago, the UUP entered an electoral pact with the DUP and Mr Nesbitt himself voted for the DUP’s Gavin Robinson in East Belfast.
Meanwhile, DUP leader Arlene Foster has denied that the election result – in which unionists lost 16 seats and nationalists lost one seat – was a disaster for unionism.
In an interview with Sky News, she pointed to the DUP’s increased vote as evidence that the election had not been disastrous and said that she had not once considered resigning in the wake of the result.
Addressing the meeting in Cookstown, Mr Nesbitt said that the DUP’s language was “intent on domination”.
He went on: “They talk of ‘rogue’ and ‘renegade’ ministers. They can talk of the ‘crocodile’ that needs starved.
“All that language achieves is further division, polarisation and the energising of voters who were previously content to put their constitutional aspirations to one side as they enjoyed the benefits of being within the UK – making money, educating their children, having access to a health service without having to pay – and all the rest.”
Mr Nesbitt, who will step down as UUP leader next month when the party has chosen his successor, went on: “What is missing from the DUP is any sense of the values and principles of 1998: reconciliation, tolerance, trust building and the demonstration of mutual respect.
“It is the unionism of domination, not partnership. It is – to my mind – the politics that endangers our future.”
Mr Nesbitt said that Northern Ireland’s future within the United Kingdom “will be best secured by maximising the number of people who are content and happy with their lot, including Catholics and aspiring nationalists. When people are too busy enjoying life, the more secure the Union will be. Partnership. Not domination”.
Mr Nesbitt’s comments came on the day that it was reported by The Belfast News Letter a proposal from another UUP member, the former South Antrim MP David Burnside, for the resurrection of the old United Ulster Unionist Council (UUUC) which fell apart 40 years ago.
That sort of structure would likely see a committee deciding how many candidates to run in each constituency and which parties those candidates should be from.
Writing in Saturday’s News Letter, Mr Burnside – who was involved in highly confidential DUP-UUP talks exploring merging the two parties in 2012 – proposed a pan-unionist front which would involve agreement on candidates for Assembly and council elections and “a pact in every constituency” for Westminster elections.
He said: “We need total unionist co-operation so there is no vote splitting.”
Warning unionists that if they are not totally united “our political influence and power base is under serious challenge at Westminster, and Stormont” as well as in councils, Mr Burnside argued that such a project should encompass all of unionism – including the TUV, Ukip and independents such as Lady Hermon and Claire Sugden.
Although the DUP has called in general terms for some form of unionist unity, the party did not respond to a request for comment on Mr Burnside’s specific proposal.
However, the idea received a cool response from Mr Burnside’s own party, the UUP. A spokesman said: “David Burnside and others may have their own personal opinions on these matters but it will be UUP elected representatives working in conjunction with our party executive that make policy decisions.
“Our priority at present is to see the restoration of the devolved institutions.”
The TUV leader Jim Allister had raised the issue on Friday night, during a discussion on BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme, setting out support for the concept, but questioning how firm unionist unity could work in practice.
Mr Allister told the programme: “I don’t think unity in any serious form is possible without a unity on policy. If there are unionists – and there are – who are intent on having Sinn Fein in government, and unionists like me who don’t think that’s in the interests of the Union then it’s hard to see how that can be married.
“But let me be clear – unionist cooperation is always something that I’ve been open to and willing to embrace. I think we had it at its best probably with the United Ulster Unionist Council way back in the ‘70s when we produced remarkable electoral results but kept the integrity of the then three component parts who were all separate parties within it.”
The North Antrim MLA went on: “I think that worked very well; it provided an umbrella, but it provided the environment where there was maximisation of transfers between unionists and that’s for the good and I’ve no difficulty with that. But I think you have to have breathing space within that cooperation for the different emphasis and elaboration of policies which are a fact of unionist life.” However, the former Alliance leader David Ford – whose party has benefited in recent years from voters tired of both the unionist and nationalist parties – told the same programme: “I’m not sure what unionist unity amounts to, other than one last desperate fling at a headcount.”
Meanwhile, in her Sky News interview it was put to Mrs Foster that the election had been disastrous for unionism. She replied: “Well I wouldn’t characterise it as a disastrous result. Indeed, we increased our vote by some 23,000. It just so happened that we were in a situation where we were moving to five seats instead of six seats per constituency so we were always going to see a reduction in the number of seats that we held and as well as that the nationalist turnout increased so I think that has caused a shock if you like, certainly within unionism.”