It looks like next May’s Assembly election will be one of the most brutal intra-unionist battles since the early 1970s.
A lot of leaders have a lot to prove and lack of obvious progress will consign some of the smaller parties to the footnotes of history – along with the likes of Vanguard, the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom Unionist Party, the Ulster Democratic Party, the United Ulster Unionist Movement and the Northern Ireland Unionist Party. (Go on, admit it, you’d forgotten most of those had ever existed!)
The big battle will be between the UUP and DUP, but the minor parties will also be scrabbling and skirmishing to either hold on to, or get a foothold in the Assembly.
Ukip’s David McNarry is not defending his Strangford seat, leaving that task to the virtually unknown Stephen Crosby. Since McNarry is their best-known name and had a reasonable chance of holding on, this strikes me as a very odd decision. The party also saw Henry Reilly defect to the TUV, meaning that any chance it may have had of a second seat has gone.
Reilly’s shift to the TUV improves their chances of picking up a seat in South Down – but that will involve a ding-dong between himself, the UUP, DUP, John McCallister and maybe Ukip. The odds remain against him, yet anything is possible when transfers start flowing within unionism.
Jim Allister will keep his seat in North Antrim and will hope that the absence of Sammy Wilson in East Antrim will help the TUV’s Ruth Wilson. But the UUP will also be fighting for another seat there, so expect ferocious exchanges all round.
The PUP needs a presence in the Assembly. It’s good for publicity purposes – and finance – and gives them a chance of building an added relevance in the run up to the next local government elections in 2018.
The PUP has good people in the ranks, but they don’t usually get the sort of exposure they need if the party is to have any chance of growth. That’s why the Assembly matters: much more so than their 4/462 councillors. They’ve an outside chance of one MLA, but again, they’ll be fighting for that seat against very hungry rivals and may fall victim to the fact they don’t do well at the transfer stages.
So, at this point – and a lot can change in six months – it looks like the TUV/PUP/Ukip will be lucky to muster four seats between them: and likely that it will only be Jim Allister who makes it in the end. Either way, it does raise serious questions about whether any of those parties will survive much beyond 2016 as political/electoral vehicles here – particularly when MLA numbers are reduced from 108 to 90 at the next election.
The UUP is in a good place: attracting new and younger members and picking up a handful of council defectors. But – and it is a very big but – it is still slightly behind the number of votes it polled in the 2003 Assembly election, when it won 18 seats with 103,145 votes (14.9 per cent). Its highest point since then has been 102, 361 (16 per cent) in May’s general election. These figures may seem to be mere trifles, but it’s worth bearing in mind that parties usually do much better when they benefit from an increase in hard votes rather than just a shift in percentages.
That said, the party is much better placed and prepared than it was in the 2007 and 2011 elections. Yet it still has a mountain to climb, beginning with winning back the seats lost when Basil McCrea, John McCallister and David McNarry went to NI21 and Ukip. But real progress depends on picking up seats in East Londonderry, North Down, South Antrim, Lagan Valley, East Antrim, Fermanagh/South Tyrone – which are particular targets, along with a number of other lower level ones. A final tally of 19 seems probable: and 21/22 certainly isn’t impossible.
The DUP’s problem is that UUP gains of between three and six seats (getting back to the original 16 of 2011 “doesn’t represent growth,” according to Nesbitt) will be at their expense: bringing them down from 38 to 32 seats. And if TUV/PUP/Ukip defy my pessimistic expectations and also hit the DUP, that could also cost them a couple of seats. (Mind you, they could, instead, cost the UUP two or three seats).
So Arlene Foster’s priorities are pretty clear: ensure that the DUP remains, and comfortably so, the largest party of unionism; burst the UUP’s electoral bubble and “put Nesbitt back in his box”; keep the PUP and Ukip out of the Assembly and restrict the TUV to just Allister (whom she will mock as “Just Jim”); remind people of the consequences of a shredding of the unionist vote; and then do what Peter Robinson did to her and others, hand pick and recruit star players from across unionism.
She’s a much tougher electoral problem for the other unionist parties than either Robinson or Dodds would have been. They know it and she knows it: and that’s why it will be a brutal battle.
Allister, McNarry, Hutchinson, Nesbitt and Foster are all, in their own way, fighting for survival and they all have a lot to lose if the numbers don’t fall their way. Order your popcorn and booze now. This is going to be a fascinating spectacle.