Unionism stretched by election

The Ulster Unionist Party’s only MP has confirmed she is to stand as an independent in the upcoming Westminster elections, further complicating the election picture for the three competing unionist parties.

Lady Hermon announced last week that she would contest the seat she is favourite to hold - but not as an Ulster Unionist.

The move is another blow to David Cameron’s alliance with the Ulster Unionists following the failure to secure an election pact with the DUP.

Hermon will now stand against the joint UUP-Conservative candidate Ian Parsley, in one of the most affluent constituencies in Ireland.

In a statement Hermon said she was leaving the party due to her refusal to support its pact with the Conservatives.

The North Down MP said the distance between herself and the UUP had become “so great” that she had decided to resign.

But she also said she would “stand her ground” and fight the seat as an independent.

Hermon, the Ulster Unionists’ only MP, said she felt “profound sadness” at leaving the party.

In the House of Commons she has consistently supported Labour. If there is a hung parliament in London following the election, Hermon is expected to back Labour.

Meanwhile, her former party leader Reg Empey has been urged by a number of senior party figures to stand against the DUP’s William McCrea in the South Antrim constituency.

Empey previously unsuccessfully contested the East Belfast Westminster seat against DUP leader Peter Robinson, but could switch to South Antrim.

Uniquely within the DUP, McCrea failed to back the recent vote at the Belfast Assembly to take on some policing and justice powers from London.

Mc Crea is expected to lose some support among moderate unionists and because the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) have a candidate, Mel Lucas, running in South Antrim who would damage the DUP vote.

The prospective new minister for justice, Alliance leader David Ford, is not standing in the constituency, which could also increase his chances.

At his party’s annual general meeting in Belfast on Saturday, Empey said no decision had yet been made on the South Antrim candidature. But he criticised the DUP’s decision to compete against UUP candidates in both Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast had handed the seats to the nationalist incumbents, Michelle GIldernew of Sinn Fein and Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP respectively.

The call came as political pundits predicted that a three-way split is likely to be played out within unionism.

“The honourable thing to do is to let us have the opportunity to win them back for unionism,” he said. “If this is done perhaps we can take seriously the calls for unionist unity. As the DUP do not hold either of these seats and never have held them, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Think about it Peter!” he declared.

Some have predicted that if unionism should remain split three ways, Sinn Fein could secure the First Minister’s position -- considered to be of huge symbolic importance to unionism -- in the next Assembly elections next year.

But former First Minister Ian Paisley said at the weekend that he was confident this would never happen.

The 83-year-old, who last week asked his final question as an MP in the House of Commons, was asked about the possibility of such a scenario on BBC radio.

“I don’t think there is going to be a day when the unionist parties will be so disordered that Sinn Fein will be the largest party,” Mr Paisley said.

“There has been a swing to unionism and I believe we’ll not have that.”

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