Unionist party splinters

A MINOR Unionist party broke up in Belfast yesterday, giving another sign of the volatile state of Unionism.

After the split in the UK Unionist Party, which held five of the Northern Ireland Assembly's 108 seats, the Unionist cause is represented by six factions within the new institution. Both of the fragments remain opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

The agreement needs a stable and substantial section of Unionism to prop it up, but with such disarray in the ranks uncertainty is the order.

In yesterday's split, four UK Unionist assembly members abandoned their leader, Robert McCartney, and formed the Northern Ireland Unionist Party. While Mr McCartney seems to command the support of his party's grassroots outside the assembly, within the chamber he will become leader of a party with no other members.

The party has recently been closely aligned with the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, campaigning vigorously for a "no" vote in last year's referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr McCartney accused the four of an act of "political infamy", saying they had committed a fraud against the electorate and challenging them to resign their seats and fight by-elections. He said the rebels had little support, and denied their claim that he was a despot intent on dragooning them into a boycott of the assembly.

The dissidents attacked Mr McCartney's "insistence that we blindly acquiesce in his exit strategy from the assembly". They said that would weaken the anti-agreement forces, adding: "For elected members to withdraw from the assembly on the personal whim of a party leader at a time of maximum crisis for the Union would be an act of gross political irresponsibility."