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MEP's challenge is a non-starter

(Editorial, Irish News)

The fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly is effectively a parliament without an opposition may be understandable in the circumstances but is not a healthy structure in the longer term.

However, it also needs to be recognised that practically all nationalists and an overwhelming majority of unionists fully support the power-sharing arrangements that were introduced at Stormont earlier this year.

When the independent MEP Jim Allister predicted at the weekend that a new unionist opposition would emerge, he was presumably suggesting that a significant number of members of such a group would be capable of getting returned as MLAs.

On the basis of the outcome of the elections, which only took place in March, this was a very optimistic assessment indeed.

Mr Allister, who quit the DUP around the same time, chose not to enter the fray, and the main standard bearer for anti-agreement unionists was Robert McCartney of the UK Unionist Party.

Despite his high profile, and his decision to personally run in several constituencies simultaneously, Mr McCartney suffered a humiliating result and even lost his party's single outgoing seat in North Down.

Not a single one of his allies came anywhere near to a quota, and it is hard to believe that an intervention led by Mr Allister would immediately produce a realignment within unionism.

The opportunity, which could nonetheless be just around the corner, for Mr Allister is the next UK general election, which is probably no more than eight months away and may even take place as soon as October.

Mr Allister was successful in the European poll of 2005 as a mainstream DUP candidate and cannot be said to hold any form of personal mandate.

If he is serious about challenging the existing leadership of the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, he should immediately resign as an MEP and announce that he is a candidate for Westminster.

He could certainly throw down the gauntlet by running in North Antrim, where the name of Ian Paisley, either senior or junior, is certain to be on the ballot paper.

We would then find out swiftly the mood within unionism, and whether or not Mr Paisley has misjudged feelings in his heartland.

If a credible and semi-formal opposition is to emerge at Stormont, it is arguably more likely to be found in the centre ground, and involve Alliance and the Green Party, among others, rather than coming from the right wing, as potentially represented by Mr Allister.

Unless Mr Allister throws his hat in the ring for Westminster, the indications are that the anti-agreement campaign will be over before it starts anyway.

August 30, 2007

This article appeared first in the August 27, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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