The BBC is reporting a letter from the South Belfast constituency Ulster Unionist Association to UUP leader Reg Empey suggesting that the UUP and the DUP should discuss running a single unionist candidate in South Belfast in order to retake the Westminster seat from the SDLP.
This implies that the UUP (or UCUNF – a 'non-sectarian new force') would prefer to cooperate with the openly sectarian DUP than with the firmly non-sectarian and anti-violence SDLP. A strange position, one might think. Are issues of policy behind the call? Apparently not, since none of the three parties have any strong policies, and certainly the SDLP's policies are quite similar in practice (if not in word) with those of the UUP. Except for one policy – the future of Northern Ireland in the UK. Here the DUP and the SDLP are on different sides of a high fence. The UUP seems to be putting the issue of constitutional preference higher on its list of priorities than mere issues like tolerance, non-sectarianism, and the creation of a shared future. Has nothing changed?
The other side of the UCUNF coin – the Conservatives – have already signalled that they will propose a candidate for South Belfast (and the choice between theirs and the UUP's choice will be decided at a later stage). Will the Tories be prepared to back out of South Belfast, and out of their promise to stand in every constituency, in favour of the DUP?
On the other hand, is the UUP's lack of confidence in their ability to re-take South Belfast based on the fact that the Tories proposed candidate is a West Belfast Catholic? As such, of course, he could exemplify the kind of new non-sectarian image that the Tories are trying to present – but at the clear cost of losing the votes of sectarian Protestant unionists. A resurgent UCUNF had hopes of picking up seats such as South Belfast, with its affluent and educated electorate, but it could only do so if it could attract ex-DUP voters, but with the selection of Peter McCann the Tories are virtually ensuring that this will not happen.
The UUP appear to be worried that even if their (UUP) candidate for the seat becomes the eventual UCUNF candidate, they still will not make up enough ground to overtake both the DUP and the sitting MP, the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell. The letter from the constituency association is an early sign that not all UUP members are confident of the success of the new non-merger with the Tories.