Page last updated at 20:41 GMT, Friday, 27 February 2009

'New Force' needs to be given time

Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show

Sir Reg Empey and Owen Paterson
Sir Reg Empey and the Conservatives' NI spokesman Owen Paterson

A camel is a horse designed by committee.

I hope the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives don't take the hump, but the new political entity they've unveiled this week has the appearance of a dromedary when what they've been promising is a thoroughbred to romp home in our first past the post electoral steeplechase.

"Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force" is the name on the betting slip. The odds? Paddy Power and the rest have yet to declare. The first outing will be the European Elections in June, but the real event is Westminster next year.

Despite the "new" in the title, there's something strangely nostalgic about the name. Sinn Fein objects to "provisional" and has separated "physical force" from republican, while the DUP gets angry at the mention of "Third Force" - but this new grouping has no qualms about reclaiming a word these parties shun.

"This is something entirely new in Northern Ireland, something which would allow us to become more fully and demonstrably an equal partner in the UK family.

"The UUP believes that the Union is a two-way process and we believe that a pan-UK unionist vehicle is the best way of promoting the values of the union," said a delighted Sir Reg Empey after his party backed the new name.

Of course, it hasn't been easy for Sir Reg to get the project to this stage. It has already been reported by my colleagues that the Conservatives wanted to drop the word "Ulster" from the title. But this touched a raw nerve with many in the UUP and the current amalgam was agreed.

Discipline

This compromise demonstrates one of the potential weaknesses in the new arrangements. It's not a political party - Sir Reg has made it very clear that this is not a merger, or a Tory takeover.

So, it will be contesting elections as a single entity, but without the usual benefit of strict party structure and discipline. Essentially this political beast risks being pulled in different directions.

In the 1967 film of Dr Dolittle, the pushmi-pullyu is depicted as a two-headed llama - another member of the camel family. Electoral rivals, such as the DUP, may hope that's what they're facing come Westminster next year.

But what they shouldn't forget is that the "New Force" comes with the backing of the highly-organised and best-financed political machine in the UK. It has pledged money and manpower to every constituency in Northern Ireland. And it just happens to be tipped to form the next government.

There may be a lack of form to predict performance. Its name may be questionable, its first steps faltering, and its general gait a bit clumsy. But the bookies would be foolhardy to write this one off too soon.

On The Politics Show this Sunday, as Westminster passes legislation to prepare for devolving Policing and Justice we take a look at the potential candidates for the Justice post. And as our economic woes continue, we ask Minister Arlene Foster if the Executive is living up to its priority to put the economy first.

See you Sunday.

Jim

PS - An interesting observation on our political plight in Northern Ireland: "We're orphans - unionists and nationalists. They don't want us down south and they don't want us in Britain. We should apply for international orphan status under the European Union." As outlined to me by an elected Sinn Fein representative who shall remain nameless.

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