PETER Robinson and Mike Nesbitt have hailed the performance of unionist unity candidate Nigel Lutton, after the Portadown undertaker took 34.4 per cent of the vote in Thursday’s Mid Ulster by-election.
But yesterday Mr Nesbitt quickly moved to urge his DUP counterpart to show his commitment to unionist cooperation by pledging not to stand two DUP candidates in next year’s European election.
Mr Robinson was not present at Thursday night’s count – though numerous elected DUP members were there – but Mr Nesbitt spent several hours at Cookstown Leisure Centre as the votes were counted late into the night.
At the election count, Mr Lutton cut a dignified, unassuming figure, even exchanging a greeting with the man alleged in Parliament to have murdered his father (an allegation which Sinn Fein’s Francie Molloy vigorously denies).
And as, at almost 1.30am yesterday, the results were read out by the returning officer, Mr Lutton politely applauded each candidate – including Mr Molloy, who, as expected, emerged the victor, albeit having lost five per cent of the outgoing MP Martin McGuinness’s vote.
There was pleasant surprise yesterday among many of Mr Lutton’s supporters that the victims’ campaigner and long-standing Orangeman had increased the unionist vote from 32.7 per cent at the 2010 Westminster election, to 34.4 per cent.
However, the total number of unionists voting declined and Mr Lutton’s vote was 599 votes short of the combined unionist vote in the 2010 Westminster election.
In a statement yesterday, Mr Robinson said: “The result of the Mid Ulster by-election was a clear demonstration that unionism stands stronger together.
“Whilst the constituency has another absentee MP a clear message was sent out from the unionist community that they want to see unionist parties working closely together.
“Nigel Lutton fought an excellent campaign and he saw Sinn Fein’s share of the vote fall whilst the unionist share increased. That is a massive blow to those who set their face so strongly against co-operation.
“Their argument that an agreed candidate would depress the unionist vote has been soundly defeated. Equally as importantly, however, has been the positive spirit with which the unionist parties have worked together.”
Mr Nesbitt said: “I always looked at this as an experiment. We’ll go away and look at the result in much more detail and then we’ll think about the implications going forward.
“We’re a long way from the next scheduled election which is Europe and I can think of ways in which we could clearly cooperate.
“We have Jim Nicholson already standing. I would be more than happy to recommend every Ulster Unionist voter to give a second preference to the DUP and we’d hope the same thing would come back the other way. I think that’s a very sensible next step in cooperation.”
Mr Nesbitt also hit out at John McCallister and Basil McCrea – who resigned from the UUP three weeks ago over the party’s support for a single candidate – for not standing in the contest, claiming they had “bottled their first opportunity to put their views to the electorate”.
Last night Mr McCallister dismissed that: “It’s a bizarre thing to come out with, to claim that I ran away from my first electoral test, and this coming from the guy who has been leader of a party for 10 months and ran away from his first electoral test.
“We haven’t even formed our party yet and we are meant to have a candidate. The two of us resigned because we disagreed with the concept of unionist unity. Mike is living in a fantasy if he thinks this is a tremendous result for his agenda.”
Mr McCallister said that the unionist percentage of the vote was little changed in recent elections, whether with a single candidate or multiple unionist candidates.
“Where it fails is that the overall unionist vote was down. For this experiment to have been a success it needed to reach into new areas and encourage new people out to vote. It failed to do that so you are getting out the same core vote but not reaching into new areas. I disagree with limiting choice to just orange and green politics.”
There are likely to be increased calls for agreements between the unionist parties in a series of marginal seats across the Province.
John MacVicar, a community activist in Greater Shankill, said that he thought the result would lead to more pressure for closer cooperation between the unionist parties in north and west Belfast.
“I would want to concentrate on how do people cooperate as opposed to using the language of people standing aside,” he said.
“If that happens [asking people to stand aside] you get into this ‘we’ve got more votes than you’ sort of thing.
“It should be about listening to what people on the ground are saying. In Protestant west Belfast, people are saying: ‘We need to see a level of cooperation that would have seen a seat going to Protestant west Belfast’.”
Mr MacVicar said that while a single unionist candidate would diminish choice, that was only one side of “a double-edged sword” which could also see seats won for unionism.