Unionist unity can't unseat Sinn Fein

THE recent run of British opinion polls should be a wake-up call to local parties.

The incredible shrinking lead of the Tories has made a hung parliament, or at least one that is very closely balanced, the most likely outcome.

The imperative in such circumstances is to maximise Northern Ireland representation. In other words, ensuring that as few Sinn Fein MPs as possible are elected. That is not necessarily the same thing as returning more unionists.

Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism at Westminster means that Northern Ireland will constantly punch below its weight. Sinn Fein's five MPs don't take their seats and count for nothing if there is a close vote.

If the Tories win, they are pledged to impose deep, even savage, cuts on public services. Labour is also likely to cut deeply because of the high level of public debt it built up bailing out the banks. In a region as dependent on public spending as we are, we need to exert every ounce of leverage we can at Westminster to secure the best deal possible in a difficult economic situation.

Keeping up spending on things like our struggling health service or our crumbling roads infrastructure is not just a good thing in itself, it is also the quickest way to create jobs. It is a myth that cuts can fall only on administrators, front line services are also bound to be affected. Beyond that, interest groups like the Presbyterian Mutual Society savers have been left to swing by Westminster, while their equivalents in areas where Britain's governing parties look for votes have been rescued. We need only think of savers with the Icelandic Bank or the Dunfermline Building Society, deep in the heart of Gordon Brown's own constituency.

The trend in polls is for a close election. In October 2007, the Tory support was at a high of 38 per cent. Last weekend their lead was two per cent. Once an election campaign is declared, the trend is for governing parties to improve their share of the vote. Predicting elections is notoriously hazardous, but the signs are that this one will be close, with even David Cameron admitting he faces an uphill struggle. We need MPs who can exert maximum leverage and will not be shy about using it.

The two seats where nationalists could possibly lose are South Belfast, held by Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP, and Fermanagh South Tyrone, held by Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew. Whatever happens South Belfast will return an MP who pulls his or her weight at Westminster.

In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the facts of life are that there is a nationalist majority and Sinn Fein polls well. Fermanagh and South Tyrone's population was 55.6 per cent Catholic and 43.1 per cent Protestant in the 2001 census. In 2007, unionist candidates polled 46 per cent while Sinn Fein and the SDLP got 50 per cent between them. Sinn Fein alone scored 36 per cent and took the seat.

There are rumours that the SDLP intends to follow the UUP's lead in fielding a former journalist in the constituency. Running for the SDLP, he would need a miracle to unseat Sinn Fein. That can only be done by a candidate who could attract nearly all the unionist votes as well as a considerable number of nationalists. Someone running as a united unionist couldn't do that and would almost certainly lose.

That is why Norman Baxter, the detective who investigated the Omagh bombing, shied away from standing as a united unionist. Baxter is popular across the community through his work with victims. Friends say he knows that only a candidate who appeals across the community can unseat Gildernew.

A successful challenge on the specific issue of abstentionism to promote the constituency's interests at Westminster would be a big blow to Sinn Fein financially, as well as in terms of morale. Gildernew is an effective minister who has grown with the job, but as an MP she has never attended Westminster. Yet last year she claimed 136,000 in allowances. Most of that went back to Sinn Fein centrally who, it is said, provided her with back-up services.

She has held the seat for nine years, so the chances are that the best part of 1 million went Sinn Fein's way in that time. That money should be going into the constituency.

Fielding a credible cross community candidate is the only way to return a real MP to Westminster. Tactical support by unionists for Mark Durkan, who faces a challenge from Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson in Foyle, is another way of maximising the Province's influence at Westminster.

It would also send a powerful message to investors around the world that Northern Ireland people are prepared to sink their differences in the common good.