There have been very interesting developments in Northern Ireland in the last week. The Ulster Unionists decided to go ahead with a joint candidate for the mid-Ulster parliamentary seat that Martin McGuinness is resigning from. They have chosen a candidate, Nigel Lutton, who is the son of a man whom the Sinn Fein candidate allegedly helped to murder years ago. Judging from the results in the 2010 election when the Sinn Fein polled twice as many votes as all the unionist candidates combined, the seat is unwinnable by a unionist candidate. This decision by Mike Nesbitt led both former Deputy Leader John McCallister and MLA Basil McCrea to resign from the party. There is now speculation that the two intend to form a new liberal unionist party.
In many ways this is reminiscent of 1985 when first Desmond O'Malley and then Mary Harney were expelled from Fianna Fail for crossing Charlie Haughey on party votes. The two got together with Michael McDowell of Fine Gael to form the Progressive Democrats or PDs around Christmas 1985 and managed to exist for two decades before going out of business. (See Stephen Collins's Breaking the Mould for a good history of the PDs.) Mike Nesbitt, would probably be glad to be mistaken for a unionist version of the quasi-dictatorial Haughey. Instead he has suffered from a series of crippling defections from the party since he assumed the leadership and attempted to impose discipline on the "big tent" party.
There are two parties likely to be impacted directly by the resignations and by the formation of a new party: the Ulster Unionists and Alliance. McCrea has spoken of forming a "non-sectarian unionist party" which is as much of an oxymoron as the notion of a "nationalist non-sectarian party". That is what the SDLP pretended to be throughout the 1970s under the leadership of Gerry Fitt. In 1979 John Hume ended the pretense by taking the party in a decidedly greener direction in support of a United Ireland and Gerry Fitt left. (See Michael Murphy's Gerry Fitt: A Political Chameleon for a nationalist version of Fitt's leadership of the SDLP.)
The PDs managed to create a political niche market for themselves by being conservative pro-free market on financial issues and socially liberal, which appealed to many well-educated and upwardly- mobile voters. So far McCrea has attempted to differentiate himself from Alliance by talking of Alliance as part of the system in the Executive. But, because at the time that the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated the priority was on getting all of the parties to the conflict a stake in the new dispensation, a government was designed without a real opposition. McCrea and McCallister are probably hoping to appeal to those unionists who haven't taken part in the flag demonstrations but who were upset about Alliance's compromise with the SDLP and Sinn Fein on the flying of the flag over the Belfast City Hall.
The PR-STV franchise, which is in effect in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, normally creates space for no more than the total number of parties represented in the largest multiseat constituency. In Northern Ireland each constituency for Assembly elections has six seats and there are already five well-established parties (DUP, UUP, Alliance, SDLP, Sinn Fein). Fighting for that sixth slot are already two struggling unionist parties, the Traditional Unionist Voice, a splinter from the DUP led by Jim Allister, and the Progressive Unionist Party. Both are only competitive in a few constituencies in the province: North Antrim for the TUV and East Belfast for the PUP. The new liberal unionist party, call it the LUP, would have to have some sort of de facto arrangement with the PUP and TUV so that none of the three parties intruded on the territory of the other. Basil McCrea is the MLA for Lagan Valley and McCallister for South Down. Alliance is only really competitive in the Greater Belfast area (Lisburn to South Antrim and North Down) and so if the two candidates stayed out of this territory they could avoid a major fight with Alliance and concentrate on campaigning against the Ulster Unionists.
The other alternative for McCrea and McCallister is to join the existing Conservative Party, which had been competing in Northern Ireland for over a decade--with very little to show for it. The Tories are definitely a pro-union party, unlike Alliance, are already in opposition, and are a non-sectarian party with many Catholic members on the British mainland. Either McCrea or McCallister could probably quickly find himself the head of this existing party, and they would not have to start from scratch in terms of developing party branches. They might also benefit from injections of party funding from Britain and visits by Tory stars during election campaigns, particularly during Assembly elections when the Tories would not be campaigning in England.
If the two (three with David McClarty) did form a new party, the LUP or some other name, it could potentially take away votes from both Alliance and the UUP. It could also potentially help Alliance by providing Alliance with a real opponent for the center ground--the first since the Women's Coalition went defunct in 2002. If Alliance could attack the LUP in an elevated dignified manner it could attract attention for both parties by attracting free coverage by the media. I imagine that McCrea and McCallister will both be pouring over the election results from the 2011 Assembly election, possibly with the aid of professional election agents, before deciding what steps to take in the future. Here Liam Clarke discusses the problems of differentiating a liberal unionist party from Alliance.