Analysis: UUP’s election pact gamble risks hurting it in two key seats

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

The UUP has been widely mocked for entering a pact with the DUP in which the seats it secures are much less winnable than those given to the DUP.

But Tuesday’s deal — although it could see Tom Elliott returned as an MP — could also jeopardise what were arguably two more realistic seats.

Mr Elliott’s bid to win Fermanagh and South Tyrone needs the enthusiastic support of DUP voters to succeed, something which is far from certain. Even if he does secure that backing, the seat would still be be on a knife-edge, although he is a far more serious political force than Rodney Connor last time.

The UUP, which has possibly even shocked its own leadership with a period of discipline, has benefited from grassroots unionist disquiet with the DUP over the last year. The party had reason to hope that disaffected voters may turn back to it, if only in protest.

Late last year Mike Nesbitt prudently settled on targeting two seats — Upper Bann and South Antrim, in that order.

The UUP believes that David Simpson’s Upper Bann seat is vulnerable to Jo-Anne Dobson — and the DUP’s attempts to first include it in a pact and then claim that Sinn Fein could win suggest that it is concerned about the area. Mr Simpson got into the Commons in 2005 with a simple characterisation of David Trimble as a Lundy. He succeeded in politically decapitating the then leader of unionism, but unsurprisingly, not all of his supporters were happy to see the DUP enter government with Sinn Fein just two years later.

Even the DUP’s own MLAs in Upper Bann have given hints of unhappiness at some of the party’s moves over recent times, with Sydney Anderson and Stephen Moutray refusing to vote in Sinn Fein MLA Mitchel McLaughlin as Assembly Speaker in January.

Mr Simpson has a majority of 4,000 votes, but the UUP was just 1,073 behind the DUP in the following year’s Assembly elections and believes that it can take the seat.

In South Antrim, William McCrea has a majority of just 1,183. His challenger, Danny Kinahan, is less high-profile than the 2010 runner — the then UUP leader Reg Empey — but Lord Empey was chosen at the last moment amid party turmoil.

Prior to Tuesday’s pact, there was no guarantee that the UUP would win even one of those seats, but in each case the party hoped that by presenting itself as the alternative to the DUP incumbents it could secure tactical votes from across the political spectrum — from supporters of the TUV to those of the SDLP.

Mrs Dobson and Mr Kinahan now face the unenviable task of attempting to persuade voters that they fiercely oppose the actions and policies of the DUP’s MPs at a time when elsewhere they are urging the electorate to vote for the DUP.

Voters could be forgiven for feeling confused.

The DUP faces a similar problem, urging voters to send to Westminster Danny Kennedy, a minister who they have described as financially incompetent. But as the dominant unionist party defending eight seats that would appear to be much less of a problem for it.

Mike Nesbitt’s gamble could bring him an MP. But it could cost him an MP in two seats where without a deal the UUP had a better chance of winning.

And it hardens the image of a Jim Allister as the real opposition to the DUP. Mr Allister has worked with the UUP over recent years but ultimately could be as big a threat to that party as he is to the DUP.