By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The Rev. Ian Paisley’s DUP and pro-Agreement members of the Ulster Unionist Party have both rejected, out of hand, a suggestion from the anti-Agreement MP for South Antrim, David Burnside, of a “united unionist convention.”
Burnside had suggested, in the absence of his party leader, David Trimble, who is on holiday, that all unionists come together and discuss their “bottom line” for renegotiating the Good Friday agreement.
The MP, a longstanding critic of the agreement, said it was time for unionists to stop the infighting and join together to demand changes in the peace process so Sinn Fein can be excluded from government.
But Paisley dismissed the suggestion of a united unionist convention, saying the idea was a frantic attempt by the Ulster Unionist Party to avoid electoral meltdown in next May’s assembly elections. He said he would have no talks with the Ulster Unionists until they left their “coalition government” with Sinn Fein.
A leading pro-agreement UUP assemblyman described the call for unionist unity as “desirable but unrealistic, given the inability of DUP to come to terms with the new Northern Ireland.”
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“There is no doubt that the desire of every ordinary unionist on the ground is for some form of political unity in opposition to Sinn Fein,” Michael McGimpsey said. “We are absolutely clear about that.
“However, it is at best naive to believe that the zealous DUP would ever sit with unionists like David Ervine on the one hand or Bob McCartney on the other. It would simply turn out to be a wreckers convention, full of politicians who have spent their careers sowing disunity across the unionist family.
“It is foolish to think that by weight of unionist numbers alone we could ever move into some sort of fantasy land where republicans can just be ignored by us. Given that Sinn Fein IRA have been so much part of the problem here, the solution is not to run from them, but to confront them.”
The cold, wet summer Northern Ireland is enduring has not warmed up relationships either between the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Their latest row blew up after an SDLP member predicted Sinn Fein will join the Police Board before the May assembly elections.
Tom Kelly, a nationalist member of the 19-member board, insisted Sinn Fein has “no option” but to endorse the new policing arrangements within months. “I think they will move before the next elections,” he said.
Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams, rejected Kelly’s claim, saying there is no prospect of this happening until the British government introduces new legislation.