THINGS have not been going well in recent times for your 100 per cent, full-fat unionist.  In April 2021 Arlene Foster announced she was stepping down as First Minister and DUP party leader.

She did this after more than 20 DUP MLAs and four DUP MPs signed a letter declaring they had no confidence in her. Peter Robinson, who had been DUP leader before her, said her removal was "publicly humiliating, vindictive and needlessly nasty".

Edwin Poots, who had led the charge against Arlene, stepped in and replaced her as leader, with his pal Paul Givan made First Minister. But balloons and party hats had scarcely been put away when the unfortunate Mr Poots found what it was like to be ousted as leader. After 21 days in office, he in turn was toppled and replaced as party leader by Jeffrey Donaldson. That was in 2021. Three years later, Donaldson stepped down after being charged with rape and other sexual offences. He was replaced by Gavin Robinson, who took the top post in an interim role. 

For onlookers, it was like hearing the sounds of conflict – blows, muffled cries, smashed crockery – coming  from a family home, with the family members then spilling on to the street and  engaging in hand-to-hand fighting. The DUP’s opponents in unionism, the UUP and the TUV, looked on with, I suspect, a degree of schadenfreude. 

The voting public doesn’t like parties that are divided. As if to ram this point home, one of the DUP’s founder members, Wallace Thompson, declared that he was open to the notion of a border poll and a new Ireland. If the DUP had been a party with a Buddhist streak rather than a Creationist streak, they’d  have been wondering if they were being punished for some bad thing they’d done in a former life. Then, just as they were beginning to wonder if it might be safe to go back into the water, Pat Cullen appeared. 

I’ve been trying to think of an announcement that carried comparable wallop and my mind drifts  back to the Gerry Adams declaration in the first Assembly that the post of Education Minister would be filled by Martin McGuinness. From the DUP ranks there was a sudden sucking in of breath, a half-gasp you might expect to hear from someone who’s just been hit on the nose by an RUC baton; a sense of shock, followed by a gut conviction that this wasn’t going to be a good day.

But the two announcements follow very different paths. Unionism started out detesting Martin McGuinness and over time came to respect and even like him. 

With Pat Cullen it was the other way round: the unionist people, I’d suspect, started out with a vague  pride in this smallish, tough-as-nails  leader of the Royal College of   Nurses, which quickly turned to feelings of bewilderment and a sense of betrayal as she made it clear she planned to run for and maybe win the Bobby Sands seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

It would have been different if Pat Cullen had chosen to join, say, the Alliance Party or even the SDLP. That would have been less demanding of the DUP nervous system. But to join the Shinners! 

Make no mistake: Cullen’s candidacy is a huge boost for Sinn Féin. It may also have a #metoo effect. Mild nationalists who thought that  Sinn Féin was a bridge too far may now discover their inner republican and follow in Pat Cullen’s lively footsteps.

Certainly, this is a woman to be reckoned with. That’s how we make ‘em in Tyrone.