Two days ago Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announced that he was thinking about scrapping the position of deputy leader in the party. This was after he fired Deputy Leader John McCallister after McCallister publicly disagreed with the goal of unionist unity. This follows the resignation of MLA and party veteran Ken Maginnis from the party after a public disagreement with Nesbitt over party policy towards homosexuals. And that followed upon earlier resignations. A refugee from one of those, David McNarry, has just announced that he is joining the UK Independence Party. Here a BBC story looks at the McCallister sacking and recent party controversies. The UUP is beginning to become a fair imitation of the party who couldn't shoot straight to paraphrase the name of an old Hollywood movie. Here Newsletter columnist Nick Garbutt defends John McCallister.
It is critical that it get its act together soon because Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is expected to resign as MP for Mid-Ulster to concentrate on his job in the Assembly within the next few weeks. Sinn Fein has always had a policy of abstaining from the Westminster parliament, so the constituents of the district have not been represented in parliament since McGuinness was first elected in 1997. This is okay by the republicans, but moderate nationalists and unionists want effective representation. The crucial question is whether the UUP will put up its own candidate and thereby split the unionist vote or sit down with the DUP and agree upon a single unionist candidate. The latter is the strategy that was pursued by unionists in the Fermanagh and Tyrone constituency in the last general election. In that election both the unionists and Sinn Fein won 45.5 percent of the vote and the Sinn Fein candidate was declared the winner by a handful of votes on the recount.
Unionists are no doubt hoping to improve their share of the vote from the general election. But in that election Sinn Fein won 52 percent of the vote to only 14.4 for the DUP and 14.3 for the SDLP, with the combined unionist total for all three parties equaling less than a third of the total vote. In Mid-Ulster winning is not a realistic goal so much as beating the SDLP for second place. Nesbitt must now decide from the UUP's perspective if it makes sense to beat the SDLP or possibly to try to influence the UUP's voters to vote for the SDLP and thereby hand a defeat to the rival DUP. It is a big question how many UUP voters would pay attention to an instruction or a hint from a new untried leader to vote for a nationalist of any stripe. Therefore Nesbitt, if he decides not to cooperate with the DUP, might likely run a separate UUP candidate and experience another humiliation. Or he could back victims' rights campaigner Willie Frazer who has indicated that he will run. The TUV is not running a candidate in Mid-Ulster.