March’s Assembly poll may have to be put on hold to save the DUP from a bitter internal civil war. The Irish Daily Star’s Northern Political Columnist JOHN COULTER examines how he believes Sinn Fein has been tightening the noose on the Paisley camp in recent days.
By John Coulter
March’s Assembly poll could be put on hold if the DUP looks likely to take an electoral hammering because of any Sinn Fein logjam on policing, well placed Unionist sources claimed last night. The republican leadership has yet to confirm precisely when it will hold its SF ard fheis to ratify support for Northern policing.
DUP sources have indicated the Paisley camp wants SF to hold the much-needed ard fheis before 30 January – the date set for the temporary dissolution of the so-called ‘transitional’ Assembly to allow for the 7 March Stormont elections.
DUP boss Rev Ian Paisley has had to soak up considerable internal flak since his confirmation he would accept the nomination as First Minister – provided SF supports policing and there is a favourable outcome to the election.
In spite of the security crisis at Parliament Buildings on Freaky Friday, it is being widely interpreted SF may have backed the Big Man of Unionism into a tight political corner concerning the timing of the ard fheis.
In electioneering terms, the longer SF can delay its ard fheis, the harder it will be for the Paisley camp to sell the entire St Andrews Agreement to its religious fundamentalist hardliners, especially in North Antrim, Upper Bann and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Before the 13 October Scottish deal, it was widely viewed the DUP comprised three factions – the fundamentalists around Paisley Senior; the pro-deal modernisers around deputy boss Peter Robinson, and the anti-deal ultras around MEP Jim Allister.
However, following the conclusion of this week’s resumed nomination debate, the DUP is perceived to have regrouped into two clearly defined camps, leaving Paisley Senior in the middle to keep the peace.
Robinson still has considerable clout in what is the majority pro-deal populist wing, while Allister’s anti-deal wing has been gaining ground – especially at the DUP’s grassroots level.
The real fear the pro-deal faction has – what happens if Unionist voters unhappy with the St Andrews Agreement look likely to switch their allegiance to North Down MLA Robert McCartney’s United Kingdom Unionists?
In such a scenario, where the DUP could lose considerable ground – and especially if SF has still not held the vital ard fheis – Northern Secretary Peter Hain may have to intervene to save the Paisley camp by postponing the 7 March poll, according to the Unionist sources.
These sources claim there is the danger the DUP could lose vital seats in its key strongholds to the UKUP, in much the same manner as David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists lost out to the UKUP in leading areas such as Lagan Valley in 1998.
It has been suggested given Unionist voter apathy and defections, the UKUP could pick up between eight and a dozen seats – most at the expense of the DUP.
To fend this nightmare off and maintain party unity, the DUP – like the UUP in 1998 and 2003 – may be forced to run anti-agreement candidates alongside pro-deal runners on the Paisleyite ticket.
It is also clear from SF boss Gerry Adams’ statements this week, the republican movement intends to make policing a major election issue in the nationalist community.
However, with recent polls suggesting a slip in support for SF, the republican leadership will not want to embrace Northern policing in a manner which is likely to see a further erosion either to the moderate SDLP, or a return of traditional abstentionism.
In this respect, SF is seriously considering the tactic of not holding the policing ard fheis until after the March poll, thereby maintaining its electoral support and placing Paisley Senior under even more political pressure.
While there has been talk of dissident republicans opposed to the present SF peace strategy forming a political Pan Republican Front to oppose SF candidates, the likely dissident tactic would be to encourage its supporters to boycott the elections.
SF currently has 24 Assembly seats to the SDLP’s 18. Significant levels of abstentionism in key republican strongholds, such as chief negotiator Martin McGuinness’s Mid Ulster constituency, could tip the nationalist balance back in favour of the SDLP.
As for the DUP, if SF held out on policing until after the 7 March poll, the tactic could lead to a formal splitting of the Paisley camp as fundamentalist leaning MLAs vent their anger at Ian Paisley Senior being forced to accept the nomination of First Minister.
In the meantime, the Christmas and New Year holidays will be used by both the DUP and SF to finalise their respective strategies.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty