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European election dilemma for Jim Allister

Mid Ulster chairman Walter Millar, Serena Hamilton, Ann Travers, Jim Allister and June McMullin pictured at the 2013 TUV conference.

Mid Ulster chairman Walter Millar, Serena Hamilton, Ann Travers, Jim Allister and June McMullin pictured at the 2013 TUV conference.

 

One central question was not addressed at Saturday’s TUV conference, though leader Jim Allister sought to answer another related question.

As next May’s European election approaches, the autumn party conference season (of which the TUV’s is the final) has seen unusually prominent roles for each party’s European candidate.

Whether that was the case on Saturday remains unclear; the candidate may well have addressed the conference — the candidate may in fact be Mr Allister — or there may be no candidate at all.

While Mr Allister did not address that question, choosing to keep the DUP guessing, he sought to definitively answer another, telling a hall which was slightly fuller than this time last year that the DUP would definitely not run two candidates.

That threat, he said, was a bluff to scare the Ulster Unionists into “an arrangement” with their larger unionist rival.

Then, in language which had a hint of menace towards the UUP, Mr Allister reminded Jim Nicholson that it was not DUP transfers which saw him become the first unionist elected in 2009.

Rather, it had been the transfers from Mr Allister’s 66,000 votes which pushed the UUP (then UCUNF) man comfortably ahead of the DUP’s Diane Dodds.

The implication was that TUV voters — who have shown themselves much more likely to transfer UUP than DUP — could swing the result and a DUP-UUP arrangement would be unlikely to entice those voters to support the UUP veteran.

There are strong arguments against Mr Allister standing either himself or another candidate. His 66,000 votes from 2009 were likely a zenith for the party, at least in the medium term. The result was the product of a perfect storm which swirled around the DUP and an election in which he also benefited then from incumbency, meaning that a poorer performance is likely this time round.

If that is the case — and even in 2009 with such a strong performance, he didn’t win — why stand now to perform more poorly?

Yet, the point of political parties is to fight elections, as exemplified by the SDLP, which has contested European elections for years without any great expectation of victory.

If there is growing support for the TUV’s positions, as the party claims, then not standing in this election could see its potential supporters — particularly many of those at the flag protests who share its objectives – drift off elsewhere.

Referring to the next year’s local government elections to the 11 ‘super councils’, party president Willie Ross said that “new boundaries create new opportunities”. He warned that the DUP would say “vote for us or our bedfellows will get in — all I can say is that has no logical force”.

If the party does not stand in the European election it could struggle to recover support — voting is habit-forming, meaning that standing aside can harm a party for years, as Alliance found in the past.

 

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