The three unionist parties need to look beyond the next outraged headline, says OWEN POLLEY
WHAT'S the quintessential unionist sport in Northern Ireland?
Could it be Irish League football, as David McNarry recently implied during an assembly debate on the Justice Bill? Or could it be press-release ping pong, as practised by the PR offices of the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the TUV?
Only attentive readers of their official websites are likely to be aware of the full extent to which this self-defeating pastime preoccupies the parties and their communications staff.
A fraction of the press releases in question make it as far as a newspaper, because frankly they rarely contain enough political substance to make them worth reporting.
Typically the ping pong proceeds along these lines: a party staffer writes something nasty, mischievous or even borderline slanderous about a political opponent and puts it out in the form of an official statement.
The release is circulated to journalists and carried on the party website, in the name of an elected representative.
The rival press office uncovers the slight aimed in its direction.
One of its staff drafts an indignant response, rebutting the contents of the original statement and adds a few scurrilous suggestions of their own about the politician who supposedly issued it.
Then the new release is volleyed back on behalf of the MLA or MP who was attacked and the whole tedious business is repeated.
This acrimonious back and forth can continue for days and consumes many man hours which might otherwise be used constructively.
It can also generate a lot of bad faith, anger and bitterness. And to what end? A punch is rarely landed to any measurable political effect.
For the most part these press releases simply reinforce the public's perception that politicians are easily distracted from proper work by pointless, puerile games.
They sustain the view that politics are a nasty, vicious business, which should be regarded with the utmost cynicism.
As a party set up to confront and confound the DUP, it's no surprise that Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice website is chock full of aggressive, accusatory press releases.
The most lengthy rallies, however, are still conducted between the Democratic Unionists and the UUP.
Only last week East Belfast MLA, Robin Newton, endorsed a statement accusing former Ulster Unionist leader, Sir Reg Empey, of cynically re-designating the UUP's Victoria branch HQ as an 'Advice Centre'.
The insinuation was that it had only been opened as a publicity stunt ahead of next year's assembly election. A press release in Empey's name angrily rejected the allegation and dubbed the DUP assemblyman 'Nasty Newton'. 'So much for unionist unity!', it thundered.
Previously the Open Unionism blog highlighted a press statement from the DUP's Upper Bann MLA, Sydney Anderson, which it felt was the "dumbest, most irrelevant and pathetic" ever released by a unionist party.
Anderson claimed that a Union 2021 article by the UUP's Mike Nesbitt had advocated Northern Ireland becoming part of the Republic, subject to a deal on 'financial arrangements'.
It was a fairly transparent attempt to distort Nesbitt's position and it was completely futile, because, beyond the points-scoring, it was just too silly to become a news story.
Countless similar examples can be found on the two parties' web archives. Tom Elliott uses the word 'integration' and the DUP accuses him of being opposed to devolution.
The UUP responds with sarcastic missives about the likelihood of 'unionist unity'. And so on - ad infinitum. The frequency of these exchanges may intensify as an election approaches, but low level warfare continues all year round.
Not that incivility in politics is restricted to unionism or to Northern Ireland.
The example of Phil Woolas, a Labour MP whose election victory has been annulled because he played dirty, will give politicians across the UK pause to think more carefully about their tactics.
When it looked like he might lose his Westminster seat, the former government minister made allegations about a Lib Dem opponent which were later deemed to be 'untrue'.
The Election Court found that Mr Woolas had knowingly stoked racial tensions and made false accusations during the campaign.
Not only has the result been overturned, pending an appeal the respondent is also banned from standing for elected office for three years.
The judgment sets an important precedent, because the judiciary has shown that it is prepared to overturn an election result, if the successful candidate can be shown to have knowingly misled the public about an opponent during the rough and tumble of a campaign.
It's a point which the local parties should absorb as May's local government and Assembly elections approach.
Petty point-scoring might seem irresistible at the time, but childish insults aren't a substitute for winning an argument on policy.
They might even get you suspended from politics.