What will the future hold for increasingly split unionism?

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

It’s always fun when a frisson of excitement is introduced into local politics: and that’s what happened on Friday evening when the DUP selected Diane Dodds as ‘a candidate’ for the Euro election and confirmed that their officers were still considering the possibility of running a second candidate.

It’s not just that they’re weighing up the options and calculating the risks involved—which is the right thing to do given the strength of their lead over the UUP—it’s also the sheer sense of enjoyment they’ll be taking from “messing with Mike’s head.”

Irrespective of whether the DUP runs a second candidate we know already that it’s going to be a very crowded pro-Union field.

The DUP, UUP, UKIP, PUP, NI21, Conservatives and Jamie Bryson have already confirmed they’ll be standing. The TUV will either have to stand or endorse one of the others: choosing not to stand would leave them vulnerable to charges of cowardice from the DUP, while endorsing someone else—however they dressed it up—would also give the impression that they were afraid of a contest.

At the moment it looks like at least seven shades of unionism will be on the ballot paper next May, the highest number since the first Euro election in 1979, when the DUP, UUP, UPNI (Brian Faulkner’s party) and independent unionist Jim Kilfedder ran.

The UUP put up two candidates (their leader, Harry West and John Taylor), but underestimated the personal appeal of Ian Paisley and made an absolute dog’s dinner of their vote management campaign. The result led to Harry West’s resignation a few weeks later, to be replaced by Jim Molyneaux.

The UUP will be unsettled by all of this. They cannot afford—politically, electorally or financially—to lose the seat: put bluntly, going into the next general or Assembly elections without a sitting MP or MEP would, almost certainly, be a wrecking ball contest for them. They need their MEP. They need to hold that seat.

All of which may make them pretty ‘flexible’ if the DUP approached them with some sort of election pact deal in the next couple of months. The latest opinion polls (which followed their supposed U-turn on the Maze) have the DUP comfortably ahead of the UUP, while the UUP is not comfortably ahead of Alliance. Also, the same polls suggest that NI21 has made some sort of impact (it’s edging towards five per cent, just under half of the UUP’s 11 per cent) and could chip away at the liberal/pluralist end of the UUP’s core vote.

Which raises a question: is it in the DUP’s interests to further damage—maybe even kill off—the UUP? Let’s face it, Nesbitt has played fast and loose with the DUP since the Unionist Forum was created last January and, as a very senior DUP figure told me a few days ago, “it’s very difficult to know where Mike is going to position himself on anything, since he seems to want the best of both worlds, kicking us one minute, then sucking up to us the next.”

Actually, that’s understandable, since Nesbitt has two very distinct audiences to address: the ‘traditional’ wing of the party (which is clearly in the ascendant at the moment) and the ‘liberals,’ who will have an NI21 option next time around.

More annoyingly for the DUP, he’s also played footsie with TUV/UKIP/PUP and the Orange Order.

That said, the DUP is also aware there are unionist seats that it cannot pick up and which would also be difficult for PUP/UKIP/TUV/NI21 to win. The danger, therefore—a danger which it wants to avoid—is of those seats drifting into the clutches of either Alliance or republicanism/nationalism. Unionism has a bare overall majority of just four in the Assembly and the psychological damage of losing that majority would be enormous. So it may suit the DUP to shore up the UUP: albeit for now and at a price.

The other big test at the Euro election will be for NI21. They need to do well and prove that they are more than just a diversionary blip. Again, that’s a huge challenge for them. McCrea and McCallister were good media copy when they were thorns in Nesbitt’s flesh, but not quite so interesting as the leading figures in a new and still very minor political party. They need to comfortably clear the five per cent barrier, something that only Jim Kilfedder (1979) and Jim Allister (2009) have done outside mainstream unionism.

It’s very unlikely that UKIP, PUP, the Conservatives or Jamie Bryson will do much in terms of electoral impact: they are all fringe interests and probably standing just to maximize their chances at the council elections on the same day. But it does mean a further fracturing of the unionist/pro-Union vote. Does that matter? Or, putting it another way, is there any danger of unionists losing the second seat?

In 2009 the unionists held both seats with 49 per cent to the SDLP/SF’s 42 per cent: so maybe a splintering accompanied by a shift could push the seat to the SDLP.

That’s a very big maybe and would require a ‘perfect storm’ scenario in which unionists didn’t transfer in their usually huge numbers to each other and Sinn Fein went in sufficient numbers to the SDLP. Not impossible, I suppose, but unlikely this time.

And now, the question you really want me to answer: should the DUP run a second candidate?

Well, in an already crowded field, with the UUP challenged from a number of quarters, the DUP has nothing to lose. So yes, I would say ‘go for it.’ But will they? My hunch—which is all it is—is that they won’t. They may have no love for Nesbitt, but they would prefer the UUP to the unionist alternatives, or to the prospect of a unionist minority in the Assembly in 2016!




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