Why three candidates wont hurt the UUP

Way back in the early days of 2005 Mick asked me to contribute a UUP perspective on Slugger for the 2005 Westminster elections. I got rather a lot wrong – but then Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams used to tell my Grandfather that he would be in a united Ireland by now.The 2007 Assembly elections will be interesting for my Party. Fair_Deal’s analysis here seems to indicate that he thinks the UUP will return something between 20-25 seats. If the election were held tomorrow, I’d agree, but an election campaign changes things just as goals change football matches. I have nothing but confidence in the party leader that the lessons of the past have been learned, and that we will not be complacent enough to pick a number that seems likely or desirable and pray. I would not make that statement without having evidence in my own mind.

There has been criticism on this blog and elsewhere at South Belfast, East Antrim, Strangford, North Down, Upper Bann and my own Association of Lagan Valley taking the decision to run three candidates where two appears in conventional wisdom to be the better decision. Initially I have to admit that I shared this opinion, and came close to voting against it, however have come to the decision that it is worth the perceived risk.

I have looked at some heavily or completely unionist DEAs to see what effect the UUP running too many candidates has. Whilst I looked at random and by no means conclusively at the 2005 results, I only found one instance, in Castlereagh, where standing two candidates instead of three might have returned two seats (although I would have to look at the full results sheet to see conclusively).

On the converse I saw Coleraine East where 1.4 quotas amongst three candidates returned two seats, Lisburn Town North where 2.5 quotas amongst 5 candidates returned three seats. In Lisburn South three candidates splitting a poll of slightly more than a quota did not affect election of one UUP Councillor, and likely wouldn’t have done had the DUP run 5 candidates.

Even more interesting was Coleraine Central where 2.6 quotas returned all three candidates. The Party on 1st preferences in Balmoral had no claim whatever to the last seat, yet lost out by less than one vote.

The UUP can rely on transfers much better than the DUP can to get candidates elected. I often hear people remark about candidates being hauled in on the 13th count as if this is something to be ashamed about. They all count.

With dissident republicans, anti St Andrews unionists, anti water charges candidates, the Conservative-and-sort-of-pro-union-in-a-friendly-kind-of-way Party, Greens and other such distractions likely to be standing in all constituencies, transfers are definitely what this election is going to be about. North Down in 2003 could be replicated across Ulster in 2007. I don’t see this as any major threat to any of the four big parties, as I would be fairly confident that more than half of this renegade vote will be new voters, providing new lower order opportunities for the UUP to pick up extra seats east of the Bann.

Secondly it is self evident that pitching high allows for any upturn in UUP support. The St Andrews deal was appalling for Unionism and not great for the general governance of Northern Ireland. The working classes and leaders of business and industry will be united in their opposition to the Irish language act, if for differing reasons. The DUP message has been unravelling as the party begins to split asunder over power sharing, with Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley claiming it will happen in 2007, and Gregory Campbell deciding that King Herod will open a childcare facility first.

The UUP can generate two rhetorical questions from this. Why would our existing voters (around the 120,000 mark) ditch the UUP for DUP in this circumstance? Second, is Bob McCartney in a position to take what could amount to 10 Assembly seats from this situation? If he is, do we care?

The UUP has nothing to fear from this election. We fought a verifiably dreadful campaign in 2005, and still 117,000 people cast their votes in our direction. Those thousands of people understand what I understand to be the best interests of Northern Ireland. The BBC Poll late last year seems to confirm that this is our core support.

McCartney will I believe pull a lot of new voters out who are intent on stopping Paisley doing a deal. The rest of his vote will be 95% old DUP. The dissident Republicans can expect a conversely similar support profile on their side of the community. On top of losing votes to renegades the DUP and SF also need to be wary of those who will simply stay at home – those voters are likely to be exclusively voters who switched from the UUP and SDLP since 1997. How big this group is could be critical to the dynamics of this election and its aftermath.

The DUP has dealt unionism such a stinking mess of a deal, that it has written into it a bolt hole for itself that it will no doubt use to try to avert this situation. The First Minister is now to be from the largest party, not the candidate who can get the most cross community support of the Assembly.

Unionism is a movement of people who cannot stand the sight of each other. In truth it is amazing that my Party remained the united voice of Unionism for so long before Paisley split the movement. Unionism will never be united again – that’s just the kind of people we are. Therefore it is truly incredible that the DUP has had the rules of Government in Northern Ireland changed to make sure that only the largest Party takes First Minister. An Assembly Election could return 100 independent Unionists, but for so long as the remaining eight were designated as Sinn Fein, not one of them would ever be First Minister. And if McCartney, took enough seats off the DUP to force them behind the UUP, and if we held our ground, Sinn Fein nominate the First Minister even if Nationalism is in the minority. To ensure its own survival the DUP has changed the processes of government. Any tyrannical despot the world has ever produced would be truly proud.

Notwithstanding the DUP’s cynical, dangerous and morally criminal tinkering with the rules of election of First Minister, which hopefully can still be changed, Reg Empey could see himself returned to Stormont as the leader of the largest party of the largest designation on 24 seats. I’ll be going to the doorsteps on the basis that I want people to cast a vote for Reg Empey as First Minister, and while it’s not exactly likely, goals change football matches, election campaigns change results. Being in for three seats wont hurt our chances of securing two in most if not all cases east of the Bann, and even if it does, I reckon the risk is worth it.