When he became leader Mike Nesbitt said that UUP recovery would take two electoral cycles.
His goals for the first cycle – the Euro and council elections in 2014, the 2015 general election and the 2016 Assembly election – were Jim Nicholson’s return to the European Parliament, increased representation at local government, at least one MP elected to Westminster and adding two or three seats to the 2011 tally of 16 (although that has fallen to 13 with the departure of David McNarry, Basil McCrea and John McCallister).
The first two goals are secured, albeit with a poor performance by Nicholson and a slightly less than 2 per cent rise at council level. He needs a win on May 7 to keep his recovery plans on course and since there is no seat that could be described as ‘bankable’ for his party a deal with the DUP seemed inevitable.
The DUP is desperate to win East Belfast – a last hurrah for Robinson’s leadership – so it was also up for a deal.
Both parties initially sold the pact talks process as a way of winning East and South Belfast and maybe adding Fermanagh/South Tyrone to the gains: which would have meant Belfast with three, rather than just one unionist MP, and unionists recapturing one of the jewels in Sinn Fein’s electoral crown.
It would have allowed them to say that, with 11 of the 18 constituencies in their hands (along with the pro-Union Lady Hermon in North Down) unionism had two-thirds of the seats, rather than the half they have now. In other words it would be a fillip for unionism and set them up for more success and greater cooperation in 2016.
On paper this looks like a fabulous deal for the DUP. They can bank North and East Belfast: and with a strong Sinn Fein candidate in South, a relatively unknown UUP runner and an Alliance contender who doesn’t have the same sort of profile or track record as Anna Lo, they have a real chance of unseating Alisdair McDonnell. So it’s not impossible that the DUP could actually bag three of the Belfast seats.
Against that, the UUP has what Robinson describes as the “two constituencies set aside for them” – Newry and Armagh and Fermanagh/South Tyrone.
Even Nesbitt describes victory in Newry and Armagh as “extremely difficult to achieve”. And while Fermanagh/South Tyrone looks like the easier ask, there is a long tradition there – dating back to the 1970s – of a hard core of UUP and DUP voters not being prepared to vote for a candidate from the other party.
Tom Elliott is in with a shout, yet by my reckoning his shout is not as strong as Jonathan Bell’s in South Belfast.
There had been some hope of a deal covering Upper Bann and South Belfast: but the UUP think that Jo-Anne Dobson could take David Simpson’s scalp (payback for Simpson unseating David Trimble in 2005) and weren’t prepared to stand her down; while the DUP wasn’t keen to give a clear run to either of the two potential UUP candidates in South Belfast, believing that neither was capable of maximising the unionist vote.
Could Nesbitt have cut a better deal? Yes. It would have made more sense to do a deal involving North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone and another one involving East Belfast and South Belfast. Newry and Armagh only got dragged into the mix because they couldn’t agree on South Belfast and Upper Bann. So it looks messy, it is messy and it is in the DUP’s favour.
This deal didn’t involve Ukip, TUV or PUP, which suggests that this is also a big-two party pact aimed at weakening those parties.
It is in the joint interests of the DUP/UUP – particularly the UUP – to halt the progress of their smaller rivals, so it will be interesting to see if Allister, McNarry and Hutchinson take this announcement lying down.
So, on paper at least, a poor deal for the UUP. But they needed a deal and this was clearly all that the DUP was prepared to give them.
Yet as Mrs Thatcher used to say, nothing silences your critics like a win. And Nesbitt needs just the one seat at this point.