UUP could soon be in fight for its very survival if election doesn’t go well

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

What is it with the UUP and Lady Hermon? In 2010 they fielded a candidate against her and he recorded the lowest ever number of UUP votes in the history of the parliamentary constituency.

In 2015 the party selected a candidate (Carl McClean) to run against her, only to withdraw him at the last moment.

Mike Nesbitt explained the decision: “It is now clear that Lady Hermon is to contest the seat again. In our view, she is not only a suitable choice for Ulster Unionists, she is still an Ulster Unionist in spirit and on that basis it makes no sense to stand against her. I am grateful to our prospective candidate for agreeing to stand aside.”

At the time a number of senior UUP figures told me: “Sylvia is coming back to us, Alex. This makes it easier for her.” I dismissed the prospect in this column.

A couple of weeks ago the UUP announced that North Down MLA Alan Chambers would be their candidate. Then, on Thursday afternoon, Robin Swann issued a statement: “Given Sylvia’s previous links to the Ulster Unionist Party and the fact that North Down is a unique constituency, the party decided to withdraw. Sylvia has enjoyed overwhelming support as the Member of Parliament for North Down.”

Hmm. Wouldn’t it just be easier if the party admitted that it has no mission of winning the seat and isn’t going to waste a few thousand pounds just to be humiliated by her? And maybe they could also face the fact that she isn’t returning to the fold.

Meanwhile, what happened to the possibility of a UUP/DUP pact in East and South Belfast – allowing the DUP a free run in East, in exchange for the UUP being given a crack in South? Things started badly when, two days before the negotiations, the media ran a story that Mike Nesbitt was the UUP’s choice for a solo run in South Belfast. That day I was contacted by a very senior DUP member: “There are no circumstances under which the DUP will agree to Nesbitt as a unity candidate for South.”

Later in the day I was told by the UUP: “The Nesbitt story didn’t come from us. It doesn’t help.” It clearly didn’t help, because that Monday Arlene Foster wrote a piece in which she confirmed that, with the DUP as the lead party in South Belfast, a deal involving Nesbitt wasn’t going to happen.

I am told that, during a subsequent meeting with Arlene Foster, Robin Swann suggested Danny Kennedy for South Belfast, but that the DUP vetoed this on the grounds that Kennedy was nowadays ‘too traditional a UUP figure’ for the constituency.

The DUP offered an alternative, someone who didn’t belong to either party, but had close links to unionism. The UUP rejected this candidate because “even though he doesn’t belong to the DUP, he has very close personal, family links to it”.

At that point a deal became almost impossible. The UUP had already played their best card by having unilaterally withdrawn from North Belfast and didn’t have any other card to play. The negotiations folded: the UUP announced Hazel Legge (a long-time party staffer) for East Belfast and Michael Henderson (their losing Assembly candidate) for South, while the DUP named Emma Little Pengelly for South.

The DUP won’t be shedding any tears. They believe that East Belfast – although clearly not ‘in the bag’ – is probably still winnable. And they’ve also been helped by the fact that the UUP candidate is very low profile and that the PUP, TUV and Ukip won’t be standing.

While a pact might have delivered a unionist in South, there were no guarantees, because some Alliance, Greens, SF, others and non-regular voters might have shifted to the SDLP. A four-way split between DUP/SDLP/SF/Alliance might – just – allow the DUP to sneak across the line. They were the largest party (20.8%) in the Assembly election; and if enough of the UUP’s 9% gravitate towards them (and it’s likely that quite a few will) then they’re certainly in with a good chance.

In North Belfast Sinn Fein’s decision to run John Finucane came as a surprise, but the odds still favour Nigel Dodds – even with the SDLP accused of running a ‘paper candidate’.

In South Antrim (presently held by the UUP’s Danny Kinahan) the DUP has an outside chance of stealing the seat back. So, as I noted last week, the DUP is reasonably comfortable and reasonably confident: in other words, comfortable and confident enough not to worry too much about a pact with the UUP.

For the UUP it’s a different picture. Fermanagh/South Tyrone remains, at best, 50/50 for Tom Elliott: while Danny Kinahan can’t take anything for granted. Unionists were very badly spooked by the Assembly election and it’s possible that they may rally around the lead party in every constituency. In South Antrim the DUP had a 13% lead over the UUP in the Assembly election, compared to a 2.6% UUP lead when Kinahan won the Westminster seat in 2015.

That’s quite a mountain for a sitting MP to climb. The UUP might have been better to stand aside in South Belfast if the DUP agreed to do the same in South Antrim: although it’s probable that the DUP had already concluded that the UUP was too weak to push for anything.

In March, the UUP and DUP lost 16 of the 18 seats in the shift from 108-90 seats: and with it the unionist majority in the Assembly. The DUP is desperate to push ahead of SF again – in seats and votes – and their likeliest targets are UUP seats. A unionist pact is going to be very difficult against that background. The UUP needs to do well on June 8: if not, it could be fighting for its very survival in a few months time. The DUP doesn’t deal in the normal sense of the term. The DUP eats.