With just 74 days until the General Election, it is still far from clear whether there will be agreed unionist candidates in four of Northern Ireland’s most marginal seats.
For months now, the DUP and UUP have been engaged in on-off talks about an electoral pact.
Mike Nesbitt has proposed standing aside in North Belfast and East Belfast in exchange for a free run in South Belfast and Fermanagh-South Tyrone. The DUP, believing that proposal to be unrealistic, has apparently declined — and talks continue.
Last week the DUP announced that it would stand Stormont junior minister Jonathan Bell in South Belfast, just hours after the UUP’s Chris McGimpsey claimed that he would be the UUP candidate in East Belfast.
Some people have assumed that the choice of Mr Bell, who launched his campaign on Wednesday night, means that the chance of agreed candidates is over. Ukip weighed in on Friday with the selection of Bob Stoker as its candidate in the largely affluent constituency. But although candidates can be chosen by their parties at any point, the Electoral Office’s nominations do not open until April 2 and close on April 9. Right up until that point, candidates can be withdrawn or new candidates nominated.
Some unionists, particularly more cynical members of the UUP, believe that if Peter Robinson does do a deal with them, it will be agreed at the last minute, as stringing the party along reduces its effectiveness in challenging the DUP across the Province.
But it would seem that if both parties are genuine about the negotiations there is relatively little to discuss and it would be in both parties’ interests to make an early decision either way, allowing the campaign to begin.
The only obvious reason for delay, it would seem, is if both parties are planning to stand aside in a constituency and they are attempting to find a non-party candidate.
Rank and file DUP members say that they genuinely do not know if there will be a deal, as the party decides such strategic issues at the highest level. The UUP’s executive met on Thursday night and its candidates have been told to attend a meeting of councillors today, which could indicate that a decision is imminent.
But as the SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell appears increasingly beleaguered and with a strong Sinn Fein candidate, Mairtin O’Muilleoir, standing (Sinn Fein stood aside in 2010), the DUP are taking heart, believing that as the leading unionist party they could win — even without an agreed unionist candidate.
The choice of Jonathan Bell in South Belfast is intriguing for another reason. Unique among Ulster politicians, Mr Bell has built considerable links with China over recent years. In the absence of Anna Lo from the race, that may provide him with another potential pool of voters in which to fish, in an election where the margins could be ultra-slim.
However, the refusal of the two main unionist parties to involve the TUV and Ukip — who between them took 100,000 votes last year — in the pact talks means that even if a deal is agreed, those parties could still complicate any arrangement.
Whatever the outcome, as the UUP knows to its cost from the ineptitude of how the UCUNF experiment was handled — choosing candidates at the last minute immediately puts them at a disadvantage against rivals already in the race.