Unionist disunity and the UUP

John McCallister and Mike Nesbitt Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption John McCallister was sacked by Mike Nesbitt

So was Mike Nesbitt wrong to take part in joint unionist commemorations of the Covenant centenary and joint unionist lobbying in favour of Saturday's big parade?

Or was his erstwhile deputy, John McCallister, misguided in using a speech to Young Unionists to launch an assault on the whole "unionist unity" project?

Supporters of Mr Nesbitt would no doubt argue that if he had refused to attend a joint meeting at Orange Order headquarters or a joint dinner at the Belfast Titanic Centre then he could have been accused of petty factionalism.

However, supporters of Mr McCallister may view the shared events and shared statements as the culmination of a shift in attitude towards the DUP.

First there was Mr Nesbitt's refusal to guarantee that the UUP would run its own nominee in the forthcoming Mid Ulster by-election, leaving open the possibility of a unity candidate.

Then there was the Stormont vote on an exclusion motion brought against the Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland.

When it came to a vote most UUP MLAs backed the DUP minister but both Basil McCrea and John McCallister sat on their hands.

'Profound betrayal'

In his controversial speech, Mr McCallister said it was ironic and disappointing that "reasonable observers are concluding that the UUP is sleep-walking into 'unionist unity'".

He went on to argue that the prospect of 'unionist unity' represented ''a profound betrayal and rejection of the values of the Covenant".

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Mr McCallister has argued against 'unionist unity'

And he claimed that greater unionist unity would only lead to a mirror image within nationalism, entrenching tribal politics.

Speaking to me on Inside Politics on Sunday, the South Down MLA insisted his speech hadn't been intended as an assault on Mr Nesbitt's leadership.

But Mr Nesbitt wasn't convinced, moving against Mr McCallister after receiving "many complaints" about his deputy's catchy "sleepwalking" metaphor.

Mr McCallister says he's disappointed about losing his deputy leader's job, claiming his call for an end to sectarianism and tribal politics is squarely in line with Mr Nesbitt's recent annual conference speech.

'Wry amusement'

The latest falling out will prompt debate about how long liberal unionist MLAs such as Mr McCallister and his close friend Basil McCrea can stay within the UUP tent.

Meanwhile the DUP must be looking on with wry amusement.

First the UUP disciplines David McNarry for being too enthusiastic in public about cooperation with the DUP. Now they discipline John McCallister for being too negative about unionist unity.

Addressing the joint unionist Covenant dinner, Peter Robinson said perhaps too much water had flowed under the bridge for a single unionist party to be formed in his generation.

Maybe so, but for now the current appears to still be flowing very much in the DUP's direction.