Fringe players hold little sway when it comes election time

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

About 10 days ago Martin McGuinness told BBC’s The View: “Unionist leaders have told me that they regard the UVF, PUP and the Orange Order in Belfast as one and the same thing. Mainstream unionist elected representatives have told me that they accept my analysis.”

What he didn’t say – and maybe it’s because they didn’t tell him – is whether or not they thought the link was a bad thing. Let’s face it DUP, UUP, PUP, TUV and Orange Order members have been at a series of events and protests at the Twaddell Avenue camp since last July. Known members of the UVF have also been there. So yes, it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that there is some sort of pan-unionist united stand on the issue: although that doesn’t mean that the groups and parties involved are one and the same thing.

A week before these comments McGuinness had also said: “I have watched over the course of the last 18 months unionist parties dancing to the tune of extremists within their own community and that has to end. I believe the influence of these people has impacted on the Haass negotiations.”

Now then, if we link the McGuinness comments together he seems to be saying that mainstream unionism – by which I mean the DUP and UUP – is being spooked and steered by smaller parties and by loyalist fringes. How true is that?

Three things we know for definite: the DUP/UUP lost control of the on-the-street response to the lowering of the Union Flag in December 2012; the DUP was forced to U-turn on the Maze last summer (although the UUP was also against them on that one); Mike Nesbitt was forced to retreat from his personal support for a potential deal on Haass when senior members of his MLA and party officer team told him they opposed it.

Can any of these events be linked to so-called extremists? Well, in January 2013 the DUP and UUP agreed to create a Unionist Forum which would bring together the various strands of the pro-Union family, including people and organisations linked to loyalism and loyalist paramilitarism (and no, they are not necessarily the same thing) as well as some of the people linked to the new flag protest groups.

The main purpose of the forum was, of course, to try and keep the smaller groups and parties ‘under control’ by giving them the illusion that they were being listened to by the big boys and that their concerns would be addressed.

A year later, relations between the various groups seem as fractious as they always were and nothing seems to have been delivered.

More interestingly, the relationship between the DUP and UUP also seems much worse now than it has been for a number of years. The DUP don’t like the way that the UUP has flirted with the TUV (particularly over the Maze protest) and they don’t like the constant attacks from Nesbitt about how they and Sinn Fein are responsible for bad government and lack of decisions.

Yet there is no evidence that the UUP will make inroads into the DUP vote during the 2014-16 election cycle. The problem is as it has been for a number of years: no one seems to know precisely what the UUP stands for. The Unionist Forum and Mid-Ulster election pact cost it its ‘liberal vote’ and the cosying up to the TUV and attendance at Twaddell Avenue and flag/parade protest events has scared off the very demograph that Nesbitt’s leadership was supposed to attract.

Also, there is little evidence that either the TUV or PUP can attract large enough numbers to challenge the DUP monolith.

So, what conclusions can we draw? It seems not unfair to say that the UUP (and let’s not forget that it remains a mainstream unionist party) is flirting with a variety of fringes because it has absolutely no idea who is going to vote for it anymore. It cannot take too many risks and nor can it take a stand-alone position on anything. Its vote and percentage has continued to fall since the mid-1990s and polls suggest that that will continue. It cannot afford to antagonise anyone.

It cannot afford to fall out with any demograph. It cannot even walk away from a deal if the DUP should offer one. In other words, UUP policy will be steered by a wide array of influences.

And what about the DUP? The first law of electoral politics is this: shore up your base and concentrate on those who are almost certain to vote. Dog whistling to the moderates, the softer end of nationalism and the can’t-we-all-get-along-together wing of the non-voters serves a purpose, but if you can’t guarantee they will even vote for you then don’t spook your core vote by leaning too much in other directions.

Similarly, toughen up where there is suspicion that you have gone soft. The TUV and PUP can put pressure on the DUP, but unless there is any suggestion of an electoral breakthrough by them, then the likelihood is that very few DUP voters will stray from the fold – especially once the DUP plays the biggest-party-provides-the-first-minister card over and over again.

Back to the McGuinness comments. Yes, there is evidence that the DUP and UUP are being ‘influenced’ by fringe unionism and loyalism: and given the nature of electoral habits here no-one should be surprised by that. But when the election cycle is over it will still be the DUP as the largest party and it will still be a Sinn Fein/DUP carve-up.

And what about moderate and liberal unionism? The DUP is not going to change just to attract a vote that may not even come out. The UUP is all over the place.

Those who believe in liberal unionism (and I don’t even know the definition) need to get their act together and decide what they want and what they stand for. But they’ve left it too late for the 2014-16 electoral cycle.