IN 30 years of writing about politics and elections I don’t think I have come across anything odder than this: “As a freelance embalmer, Mr Lutton has to be frequently on call. When he is on call, the DUP has said he can’t be more than 15 minutes from his base – which is situated outside the constituency in Co Armagh. The handler claimed Mr Lutton won’t take any time off work for the election.”
When Nigel Lutton was chosen as the ‘agreed’ unionist candidate (although he wasn’t the first or even second choice) he seemed to be an almost perfect identikit, tick-all-the-boxes candidate. He has been a member of the UUP, worked for the DUP, belongs to the Loyal Orders and has been a member of the Victims’ Forum. His father was murdered by the IRA in 1979 and Francie Molloy – the Sinn Fein candidate – was named, under Parliamentary privilege, as having been involved, something Mr Molloy vigorously denies.
The scene, or so it seemed, was set for a bitter, emotional battle which would polarise the electorate and push up turnout.
And yet it was a damp squib of a campaign. Lutton was practically invisible for most of the time, suggesting that neither the DUP (who were clearly his chief minders) nor the UUP wanted him to have a high media exposure.
That seemed an odd decision for a candidate who, due to work commitments, was part-time. Yet it also suggested that neither party ‘trusted’ him to be able to deal with media questions or too much contact with other candidates.
Maybe it was because there was a ‘hostage-to-fortune’ fear and that he would say something to put off one of the unionist factions/parties supporting him. Or maybe it was because they regarded him as too inexperienced to deal with bigger political issues and nuances.
It was clear from the outset that the DUP and UUP weren’t particularly keen to field their own candidates, particularly since it would have made a mockery of the cooperation that supposedly underpinned the Unionist Forum.
Both Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt had internal pressures of their own to deal with, so an ‘agreed’ candidate strategy suited them very nicely. And, as I wrote last December: “Forget all the soundbites and posturing, neither Willie Frazer nor anyone else from the Ulster People’s Forum will be standing in Mid Ulster.”
Yet, having made such a virtue out of the necessity and logic of an ‘agreed’ candidate, it struck me as extraordinary that they ended up with someone as inexperienced and unknown as Lutton and then compounded the error with a campaign so far below the radar.
Yes, I’m aware he wasn’t the first choice, so all the more reason to run an entirely different type of campaign. Unless, of course, having ended up with a candidate they knew from the start to be an under-performer, they just made the brutal, tactical decision to keep his profile down and hope for the best.
The ‘best’ in this case had to be anything above the 32 per cent unionist average of the last general, Assembly and council elections in 2010/11. Mike Nesbitt had earlier described the unionist cooperation of Mid Ulster as an ‘experiment’, the results of which would determine whether it was worth repeating the experiment in future elections.
The decision had already cost him two MLAs and a poor result would raise more questions about his leadership and authority. Similarly, a good result would raise other questions about how far he was willing to go in terms of cooperation during the next electoral cycle in 2014/15.
Did it ever make any strategic sense to have an ‘agreed’ candidate in a seat where it was almost impossible for a unionist to win? Well, if nothing else, it prevented what could have been the fraying of inter-party tempers and the unravelling of the Unionist Forum.
Also if, against the odds and previous evidence, the ‘agreed’ candidate did increase unionist turnout, percentage and votes (which is more important than just an increased percentage of the vote) then it would indicate that voters – even when they knew they probably wouldn’t win the seat – were actually quite keen on unity and increased cooperation between the unionist parties.
That evidence, alone, would have justified the ‘experiment’.
So, what do the results tell us? Well, as expected it was a reasonably comfortable victory for Sinn Fein. The DUP and UUP will take some comfort from the fact that their percentage of the vote increased slightly to 34.3 (32.7 at 2010 General Election; 33.0 at 2011 Assembly and council elections).
That said, their total number of ‘actual’ votes dipped to 12,781.
Yes, turnout was down as well, but the fact remains that fewer people voted for an ‘agreed’ candidate than voted for a variety of candidates.
Will what Mike Nesbitt described as an ‘experiment’ be judged a success? Yes. As I wrote last week: “The thankyou note to Nigel has been written already and Peter and Mike will plough on together towards further joint candidates and campaigns.”
It’s what they have been working towards for months now and the deliberate, calculated dovetailing of the UUP and DUP will continue apace. Nesbitt has, at long last, something he can point to as a ‘success’ and it was exactly what he required a few weeks before the UUP’s forthcoming AGM. That said, he will have to explain to the AGM the exact nature of the relationship between the two parties.
He still insists that merger and formal unity are off the agenda, but continues to suggest (as he did in the early hours of yesterday morning) that he wants much closer cooperation.
All in all it’s an ‘as you were’ result. Nesbitt will be happy. Robinson will be happy. The Unionist Forum will be able to roll on. What it means for unionist unity, though, is not quite so clear.
n Read Alex Kane’s regular column in the News Letter on Monday or follow @AlexKane221