When teasing stops, Allister has a big decision to make

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

On May 22 – just three months away – a variety of unionist/loyalist/pro-union candidates will have reached the final showdown of their bun fight at the it’s-not-ok-corral.

May 22 is Euro and local council election day and it’s a pretty sure bet that quite a few of the parties will be limping away from the scene with little or nothing to show for their efforts, manifesto pledges and soundbites. I’ll look at the super-council battle in a few weeks time, but for now I’ll concentrate on the Euro, which is shaping up to be a very interesting one – particularly in terms of unionism.

It looks like Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson will top the poll again. That won’t worry the DUP all that much: after all she topped it in 2009 and the world didn’t stop spinning.

The SDLP’s Alex Attwood is a liked and likeable high-profile candidate – the best they’ve had since John Hume stepped down in 2004. He will hope that a shredding of votes among the unionist candidates will allow him to squeeze through the wreckage: but that would require a perfect storm combination of circumstance and miracle. The best he can hope to do is lift the overall SDLP vote a couple of points (it averaged 16 per cent in the last two Euro elections) and hope that those extra votes trickle down to help candidates in the council elections.

This is going to be the first electoral test for Alliance since the fallout from the ‘flags vote’ in December 2012. It will let them know if they have lost any of that softer pro-Union vote which wandered to them between 2009 and 2011 and which helped them pick off Peter Robinson, as well as win an extra Assembly seat and 14 council seats. It’s also their first contest against NI21, which will be hoping to damage them and stake its claim to be the ‘new’ middle-ground in local politics.

So Anna Lo is a canny choice. She performed spectacularly well for the party in her South Belfast constituency in both the 2010 general election (adding almost 8 per cent) and the 2011 Assembly election (where she topped the poll with almost 20 per cent). She is very high profile and has shown that she can attract votes that Alliance wouldn’t normally expect to get. In the 2009 Euro election the party got its best result since 1979 (albeit that it was just 5.5 per cent) and she will be hoping to add a couple of extra points: again, hoping those votes will help council candidates, as well as keeping a very comfortable margin between them and NI21. And she will also hope that Alliance can continue to close the gap with the UUP.

This is a big election for the UUP and the first one under Mike Nesbitt’s leadership (the mid-Ulster by-election doesn’t really count). Opinion polls put the party at around 11-12 per cent and if that turns out to be the case then Jim Nicholson could be in trouble. My own instinct is that he will hold the seat. But if he holds it on a lower percentage then he’s going to have nothing to pass down to the council candidates; and that’s where the real damage could be done to the party.

The DUP’s Diane Dodds will keep her seat and I would be surprised if she didn’t hold it reasonably comfortably. That said, it looks like the party will not risk a second candidate this time, although they have clearly had great fun ‘messing with Mike’s head’ over the past few months.

And what of the others: UKIP, Conservatives, NI21, PUP, Jamie Bryson and the TUV? It’s worth bearing in mind that smaller parties tend not to do well at the Euro elections (only two or three have crossed the 5 per cent barrier since 1979) and that the price is the loss of your deposit – £5,000 on this occasion. It also costs about a minimum of £20,000 for leaflets, posters and election broadcasts etc. In other words, it’s as much about financial considerations as electoral ones.

UKIP (Henry Reilly) and the Conservatives (Mark Brotherston) will probably get support from their national organisations, but neither is going to win a Euro seat and it’s unlikely they’ll even reach double figures in council seats.

Jamie Bryson has said that he will be standing as an independent. He won’t, I suspect, come close to 5 per cent, but if he’s also standing for council on the same day (and I don’t know if he is) then he would certainly improve his chances of winning a seat there.

The PUP (who wouldn’t confirm a candidate when I asked on Saturday) has just two councillors and will want to increase that number if it is to be taken seriously again. Similarly, it needs to do considerably better than Jamie Bryson. There’s no chance of a Euro seat.

NI21 has yet to name a candidate, but if it is to have any chance of a breakthrough then it has to be either McCrea or McCallister.

Tina McKenzie, their party chair, is an impressive performer and organiser, but I’m not sure she’s a big enough, or serious enough hitter to front the party’s first (and crucially important) election in three months time.

And what about the TUV? Well, if the party is to stand then it has to be Jim Allister. They have no-one else with his profile and they have no-one else who can attract the votes the party needs for its mostly unknown council candidates.

Yes, it’s a political and personal risk for him; yet if he opts out he damages the TUV’s electoral chances at council level and he’ll be accused of running scared of the DUP. It’s also worth mentioning that he’d probably hurt the UUP far more than the DUP, as well as scuppering the PUP, UKIP and Bryson. It’s unlikely he’d win a seat – but not impossible.

He has been coy so far, yet he’s probably enjoying the teasing involved. But that teasing and thorn-in-the-flesh approach is the hallmark of a one-man-band rather than a political party. He needs to decide, soon, what he wants the TUV to be.