It's a love 'n hate thing for the new gang of two

This morning I conducted potentially the most unscientific survey of all time.

In my defence, I had not been intending to conduct a survey at all, but just making my way into BBC Broadcasting House. As I headed through the swing doors, a new party - aka Basil McCrea and John McCallister - was coming in the opposite direction. I stopped to chat in the crisp February sunshine about how the gang of two had fared on Good Morning Ulster and the Nolan Show, when someone else emerged from the BBC.

Before hopping into a waiting taxi, the man turned to Messrs McCrea and McCallister and told them in no uncertain terms that they should be "ashamed of themselves". They had, maintained the passer-by, badly let down unionism. The new party leader retorted that he had nothing to be ashamed of and stood by everything he had said. The taxi pulled away.

Within seconds another pedestrian approached to shake the MLAs by the hands. This man told them he thoroughly approved of their new venture.

So there we are - an unrepresentative sample of two males holding diametrically opposing views. I did not recognise him at the time, but it later transpired the man who thought the new party should hang their heads in shame was the father of a jailed union flag protestor, on his way out after a Talkback interview.

So not necessarily the McCrea/McCallister target audience. But then the man who thought the two MLAs were on the right track added "and you can say that came from a republican", which also was not necessarily that heartening if you are planning to canvass for votes around unionist areas of Lagan Valley or South Down.

So is there a gap in the market for the New Northern Ireland Party? The two MLAs distinguish themselves from Alliance by pointing out they are pro-Union and pro-opposition. They distinguish themselves from the other unionists by their opposition to flag waving and unity candidates.

In contrast to the Northern Ireland Conservatives, they have a presence in the Assembly and both of them are adept at using the airwaves to get their message across.


Against this, it must be an early disappointment that the East Londonderry MLA David McClarty felt his pledge to remain independent meant he could not come on board. Whilst the New Party will want to position itself as the party of those who consider themselves "Northern Irish", others, such as Alliance, will contest that territory.

Come election time, the New Party will find itself ranged against opponents with more financial and organisational muscle, whilst the fragmentation of the pro-Union vote might make it difficult for any smaller party to keep its head above the electoral waters.

Once the New Party has acquired a proper name and a raft of policies it will eventually stop feeling particularly new and the fickle media will move on to other stories.

Quite separately, before the two MLAs let us know of their intention to form their own group, Ulster Unionist sources had been briefing me that they plan to take a more militant line on welfare reform.

The Ulster Unionists say they have "serious reservations about the Welfare Reform Bill in its current form" and are "committed to proposing significant amendments that will better target welfare resources as this Bill falls far short of what is required."

The development is not directly related to the McCrea/McCallister saga, but picking an argument with Nelson McCausland might serve to put some clear water between the UUP and the DUP.

It should also please East Belfast MLA Michael Copeland, who famously delivered a filibuster speech on the topic of welfare reform, and was rumoured to have been increasingly unhappy about the prospect of the UUP backing the bill once again.

When the Welfare Reform bill had its marathon second reading in October, the DUP relied on the support of the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance. If the Ulster Unionists withdraw their backing, it could make for another lively and lengthy debate in April which will test the willingness of all the Stormont parties to breach the principle of parity with Great Britain when it comes to welfare payments.