MAJOR political parties usually seem to be guaranteed a long life and enduring influence. Yet in Britain there are signs that the ascendancy of both Conservatives and Labour could be affected in the relatively near future by the success or failure of the current coalition role of the Liberal Democrats. More immediately, a major shift has taken place in Northern Ireland where the once all-powerful Ulster Unionist Party is in a serious state of decline and even disappearance. The party's leader Sir Reg Empey has resigned following the measly 15 per cent of the votes that it obtained at the May general election -- compared to the almost 50 per cent it regularly got in its prime. Its place has been taken by Democratic Unionist Party which, however, in May lost one-third of the votes it obtained in the 2005 election. For Protestants the solution would seem to be a merger of the UUP and DUP but, as always in Northern Ireland, that is something easier said than done. In the meantime, with elections for Northern Ireland's governing assembly due early next year there seems a distinct possibility that Sinn Fein might emerge as the single biggest party and Martin McGuinness in a position to move up from deputy first minister to the top job. Perhaps that prospect alone will persuade the two Protestant parties to settle their differences.


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