When John McCallister resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party on 14 February he accused the party leader, Mike Nesbitt, of ‘forcing Northern Ireland politics back into the sectarian trenches’. Hours earlier, the UUP, the Democratic Unionists and the anti-St Andrews Agreement Traditional Unionist Voice had announced that a Unionist unity candidate, Nigel Lutton, would stand in tomorrow’s Mid-Ulster by-election. Martin McGuinness resigned the seat at the end of last year; the Sinn Féin candidate to replace him is the deputy speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Francie Molloy. In 2007, the DUP MP David Simpson, speaking under Parliamentary privilege, claimed that Molloy was involved in the IRA murder of Lutton’s father in 1979. Molloy denies the allegations. The Unionist candidate’s uncle, Joey Lutton, was jailed for his part in a 1976 Ulster Volunteer Force murder.
McCallister’s departure was followed, the next morning, by that of the Ulster Unionist MLA for Lagan Valley, Basil McCrea. Announcing his resignation live on BBC Radio Ulster, McCrea said Lutton’s selection was ‘the wrong decision for the Ulster Unionist party, it is the wrong decision for the people of Northern Ireland and I will not stand by it. I will not stay in a party that cannot stand on its own two feet.’ Longstanding friends, McCallister and McCrea had been increasingly voluble critics on the liberal wing of the UUP. Both had voiced disquiet at Nesbitt’s handling of the Union flag controversy.
Once the dominant force in Northern Irish politics, the UUP has been on life-support for a while. The party won 10 seats at Westminster in 1997 and 28 at Stormont a year later. Since then, outflanked by the DUP to the right and the Alliance to the centre, the party’s support has eroded away. In 2010, their sole remaining MP, Sylvia Hermon, left in protest over an electoral pact with the Conservatives. Only 16 UUP candidates were returned in the 2011 Assembly election. It now has 13 MLAs.
Nesbitt, who has overseen the shrinking of the party’s Stormont representation without even the formality of an election campaign, became leader last March, after less than a year as an elected representative, when he beat McCallister in the UUP’s third leadership contest in eight years. A telegenic former newsreader with a high public profile, Nesbitt was chosen not for his policies – he had none – but for his putative presentational skills. In a recent interview, he claimed that sectarian politics is all Northern Irish voters really care about:
I don’t think you’ve ever had a situation in Northern Ireland where people vote for a particular candidate because of their position on abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, the death penalty. I think people have tended over the years to vote orange and green.
McCallister and McCrea are staking their political careers on Nesbitt’s cynicism being misplaced. Last week they announced they were setting up a new moderate unionist party. It doesn’t have a name yet – there are rumours it won’t include the word ‘unionist’ – and so far only two members. Whether there are enough moderate unionist voters to sustain it is unclear. The union has never been stronger – a poll taken before Christmas found only 17 per cent in favour of a united Ireland – but the dynamics of political unionism are changing. Protestants are no longer a majority in Northern Ireland and support for the union is increasingly based not on religious identity but on transactional relations, particularly within a burgeoning Catholic middle class heavily invested in the state. This is the group a non-sectarian unionist party would hope to attract.