No myths here

O’Neill sets about knocking down myths, including the nonsense we keep hearing about the merits of a single Unionist party.

In all elections, except for Westminster, we work on a Proportional Representation system. With this kind of mechanism in place, in the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t matter how many parties or candidates there are, actually having a wider range of options may persuade more people to vote.

  • fair_deal

    What Unionism needs is two competitive parties, the problem is at present one isn’t competitive.

    However, that doesn’t mean there are not areas of co-operation between them such as voter registration, turnout, transfers and seats were it is a Unionism v Nationalism fight out.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    It is not true that PR means that the number of unionist parties doesn’t matter – there is always voter wastage as some do not cross between the parties.

    I would suspect that the number of candiates elected with a single party will be higher than the sum of the two parties when taken across NI as a whole, unless more unionists decide to stay at home.

    I am sure someone can attempt to extrapolate 1st preferences to final seats from previous elections.

  • Dewi


    2007 Assembly elections :

    DUP and UUP combined 45% of vote, 50% of seats.
    SF and SDLP combined 41.4% of vote, 40.7% of seats.

    Your point is probably of more relevance to SDLP who missed out in Tyrone through having a candidate or two too many.

  • fair_deal


    The result was among the poorest Unionism ever acheived. Post 2003 in key constituencies there seems to be a reasonable correlation between the drop in total unionist vote and drop in the UUP vote.

    The 45% and 50% could have been better for Unionism if it had its act together and would have most likely gained three more Assembly seats.

  • Dewi

    Wher do you think Fair_deal – Belfast South I suppose – North Down maybe ? From nationlists isn’t it only West Belfast that looks possible ?

  • fair_deal

    South Antrim, South Belfast, West Belfast.

    You would also have the longer shot of North Antrim but that involves PR working a bit funny (something it does do now and again).

    Also under the new boundaries, you would need to get it sorted to take the SF seat in Lagan Valley and hold on to the 2nd seat in South Down and 4th seat in Upper Bann. In terms of shut-outs for nationalism, Strangford will be more difficult with the new boundaries too and if you are not sensible the SDLP could sneak it in East Antrim again. In the longer run co-oridnation is needed to hold on to the seats in the F&ST, MU and WT.

    Under the new boundaries, North Belfast has some/limited potential to become interesting but it all depends on what happens to the SDLP and UUP vote. Although a 3/3 split remains the most likely outcome by a long way.

  • willowfield

    Unionist parties also need to educate their voters to transfer to SDLP. I think I’m right in saying that the Provos won seats that would otherwise have gone to SDLP had the latter received unionist transfers.

  • Dewi

    New boundaries deferred until Local Government changes implemented, which seems a little strange – always been dubious about the so called benefits of coterminosity.

    From the nationalist side, if new boundaries not implemented, there’s Strangford, West Tyrone and Upper Bann (gain from Unionists)an the mix.

    South Belfast now becoming very interesting – seemed straightforward Unionist re-take if got their act together. However, the new in-migration to Belfast seems to be centred in Belfast South – could have a significant change on the mix there.

    I wonder if Dr McDonell has been taking Polish lessons.

  • fair_deal


    That’s a tricky one, potentially more of an electoral cost as a stick for SF to beat SDLP(/FF?) with that than it gains them.

    A constituency by constituency approach might be wiser especially for dealing with stoops who want to out chuck the provos. I can imagine the answers I would get from my family in EL to the idea of transferring to Dallat.

  • Dewi

    Sorry to confuse two bunches of elections in the above – I meant Belfast South in nest Westminster election.

  • fair_deal


    IIRC they have to be here for a year, they often are here on shorter term contracts than that. They tend not to register to vote even if they can let alone vote. This is not a new trend there is low registration among the long-established Chinese community in south Belfast.

  • Turgon


    “What Unionism needs is two competitive parties, the problem is at present one isn’t competitive.”

    That is a simplification but is very close to the mark. Having one unionist party might make FST potentially winnable for at least a time. SB would probably be quite easy to get back though again on that I do respect Dewi’s analysis.

    So those two Westminister seats are best regained by unionism with one party / candidate.

    In the other elections and in general politics I suspect two parties may have advantages. The element of competition keeps both alert. Also some of the electorate will not vote for one lot or the other (I would suggest that becomes less of a problem west of the Bann though it does not vanish altogether). Hence, overall I suspect that unionist representation is maximised by two parties.

    The problem comes though in that I would submit we have at least three broad groupings within unionism. Firstly we have what one might call liberal unionism. These are the remaining traditional UUP supportwers who sometime may vote Alliance. Then there are the majority of unionist voters. This includes a significant segment of the old DUP vote with, in addition the segment of the UUP vote which decamped (it seems permanently though no one can be sure) over the last decade. Finally we have the anti deal unionists (the prodiban or whatever we are calling them at the moment). These were presumably all DUP supporters (I will not include UKUP as the numbers are too small to really matter).

    The DUP seems, at the moment, to cater well for the central block of unionist voters though only time will tell.

    The problem seems to be that the UUP is trying to simultaneously move in three directions. We have those like the continuity UYUC who want to go into opposition and move directly across the DUP position to attract the prodiban. Although the prodiban are clearly a heterogenous bunch I would suggest that they may be unconvienced by this attempt.

    The second lot ably represented on here by the likes Unimpartial Observer want to move to the left, secure their position against Alliance, capture garden centre Prods and support the agreement. The problem is that this analysis may be rather flawed outside the Pale (to steal Peter Brown’s phrase). It also ignores or even surrenders the majority of the unionist vote lost to the DUP and finally as Darth Rumsfeld has pointed out why should we assume that the garden centre Prod is a closet liberal unionist?

    So the third UUP strategy seems to be to spin round and round in circles achieving little, with different leading figures making contradictory suggestions and attracting pratically no one except DUP and Alliance vultures to gobble up whatever is left of the vote. It is sort of like a star becoming a supernova and then a Black hole (I should leave space analogies to Pete Baker).

    So to come back to fair_deal’s initial supposition that two unionist parties is best in terms of getting votes. That is no doubt correct but I would suggest that as well as the UUP being useless and divided the DUP is in slightly the wrong place. To maximise unionmist votes the UUP should implode and vanish completely (I suspect it will not but will remain as a black hole), the DUP should move a little to the left and the prodiban should set up a new party with credible leaders. I do not think all that is about to happen though with the exception of a gradual liberalising tendancy in the DUP especially when Robinson takes over.

    It is only left to me to become a prodiban garden centre attender. I will be identifable by having a scruffy car, not being at the garden centre on Sundays and looking insane, this will hopefully stop unfortunate liberal unionist canvassers trying to talk to me.

  • willowfield


    Surely if it can be demonstrated that failure to transfer to SDLP will lead to Provos being elected who otherwise wouldn’t, at least some unionists would be encouraged to do so (after having voted for other unionists first, of course)?

    Is Dallat not preferable to a Provo?

    (Focusing on particular constituencies, yes.)

  • Dewi

    “The Polish Community is now a well established part of our city. We know that 40 per cent of people who migrate to Belfast from other countries come from Poland. That is a staggering figure.

    “We also know that most of them live in South Belfast. We know that about a quarter of them are registered to vote. We also know that Polish people are bringing their families to settle in Belfast.”

    From a City Council sponsered study. A quarter registered – I’ll try to do some digging on actual numbers.

  • Ahem

    Dewi [he says gently], Poles can’t vote for Westminster. In local and EU polls, EU nationals can, but for Westminster they can’t. So there could be 40 million Poles in Sth Belf by the time of the next, uh, poll and it would make squat all difference. My regrets therefore to the Poles, their Queen, and, SDLP hopes of keeping the seat.

  • Dewi

    “By including figures for dependants and those outside the formal recording system, it is possible that as many as 7,500 migrants came in the same two year period; this is considered a conservative estimate.”

    From the report – the two year period referred to ended March 06. Report also staes that 16% were under age.So you have a potential electorate of 6300 – report says “most Polish” (v helpful !) – I’d say 80% of Easter European origin that’s down 5040 – of which “most” in Befast South – guessing here but say 60% – down to 3040. Of which a quarter registered – a grand total of 756 !!!
    (Was that worth the effort ???)

  • Dewi

    Ahem – wish you’d told me that 20 minutes ago. What’s the principle involved ?

  • George

    might I just point out that your analysis seems to be limiting the unionist vote to Protestants and, in the long run, that simply isn’t going to be enough to maintain a majority.

    It’s all well and good trying to mobilise all the fish in the pool but that pool is slowly but surely shrinking.

  • fair_deal


    There is an issue of how much opportunity you have to explain to the average member of the electorate about the mechanics of PR and a greater priority is to solve the primary issue, ensuring they have “voted for other unionists first”.

    There are a couple of constituencies where it is a potential Unionist v SDLP battle for a seat so again reason for caution eg North and South Antrim so there is a potential for voter confusion.

    It is probably one of those ideas that is a interesting theory but the practicalities are its downfall, although I still think the negative on the nationalist side outwieghs any benefit Unionism could give to the SDLP. It is probably more a Westminster option than an Assembly one.

    Is Dallat not preferable to a Provo? As I said that would be a matter of a rather short debate with most of my family, as much difference as makes no difference. There are decidely two wings to the SDLP, similar to the two ways the UUP are pulling. If it was the likes of eddie mcgrady it would be much less of an issue.

  • fair_deal


    I agree about the three way pull the UUP is experiencing. I would though be more cautious than simply tagging their present voters as “These are the remaining traditional UUP supportwers who sometime may vote Alliance.”

    There is a fundamental flaw to ALL three camps. They DON’T really know who their voters are so define them to suit their own chosen direction. One that they are all liberal, one that they are traditional conservative Unionists, the third that they remain as mixed a bunch as they always have been so try and do a little to please the range

    In terms of electoral argument the conservatives have it over the liberals is there are more real votes to the right of the UUP than to its left in Alliance. My hunch is the third are probably closest to the truth about their present voters although the patterns between the different gorupings have probably shifted.

    The UUP if it is reviewing anything should be reviewing/researching who its voters are and why they vote for them.

    Secondly, all three ignore their greatest potential for growth that doesn’t involve having to compete with either Alliance or the DUP. The 30,000 plus (IIRC) UUP regular voters in key East Ulster constituencies who have simply stopped voting since 2001/3. Another bunch they now next to nothing about. They don’t have to get them back from another party simply get them out which they previously did regularly.

    As regards the obsession with the mythical garden centre prod. I would share Rumsfeld’s scepticism of the “garden centre prod” theory. Trimble spent years trying to find them with no/little success.

    In terms of repositioning there are also moments in politics that allow repositioning. If we leave aside the debate about whether the UUP can make an oppsotion, if the UUP was to go into opposition the time to do so was immediately after St Andrews with a two-pronged attack would have been – been there bought the t-shirt/learnt the lessons/not going to jump in same hole again and make a case of how the DUP had messed up. That moment has essentially gone now unless the Provos do something stupid.

    The debate about the future of the UUP is trapped in what roles it could fulfil eg get more liberal voters out. Instead it needs to come up with a reason to exist beyond the present which is to provide a vehicle for people who have always voted UUP to continue until they die and for those Unionist who don’t like Paisley or the PUP.

    Neither provide a clear brand/positioning with any longevity – the first is a declining market the other places the future of the party entirely in the hands of the other parties and public reaction to them.

    Opposition to St Andrews would have been a reason (but missed that boat).

    The other option not raised for re-branding/positions is amalgamation with the Conservatives. It puts some clear water between them and the DUP, Cameron’s conservatives have enough of a hotch-potch to keep enough of the liberal and conservatives happyish. The major barrier to this is the potential of 3 MLA’s and the MP going walkies (don’t know about councillors).

    In the early years of reg’s leadership a little bit of everything was sensible to try and steady the ship. However, that moment has passed and decisions have to made. Each and every one of them will involve short-term pain and no guarantee of longer-term success but turning around on the same spot isn’t going to work either.

  • Valenciano

    In theory if everyone voted fown the ballot then numbers of candidates wouldn’t make a difference. In practice people don’t therefore anyone who knows anything about elections knows that limiting the numbers of candidates your party runs to realistic levels is necessary. The UUP and SDLP (especially in West Tyrone) seemed to have difficulty with that concept last time though.

    The Nationalist seat in Lagan Valley is a goner next time. Removing Glenavy, Lagmore and Dunmurry almost halves the Nationalist vote – good news for Alliance!

    Dewi, there’s a problem with the deferment of the proposals. Google the parliamentary constituencies act 1986 and it jumps out. Reviews must be completed every 8-12 years. The last review was completed and took effect on 31st December 1995. That means that this one, by my reading of the rules, should be done and dusted by the end of the year. Why it takes them four and a half years to review 18 seats when London for example took less than two years to review 73 is the main question and a sad testimony to their ineptness.

  • Unimpartial Observer

    Turgon’s erudite analysis raises some v. interesting questions – particularly with regard to the UUP currently “pulling three ways”. In other words the leaderless UUP currently gives the impression of trying, simultaneously, to appeal to liberal unionists, to appeal to the ‘new DUP voters’, and also to appeal to the anti-power-sharing Jim Allister ‘Prodiban’ unionists also.

    The pro-Union electorate are far more sophisticated now than in the past, and to hold so many contradictory positions at once is highly corrosive of the UUP’s ability to solidify any section of pro-Union opinion behind them.

    For a party now at serious risk of falling into 5th place behind Alliance, this is a recipe for disaster, even extinction.

    I accept that the UUP shifting decisively towards a centre-ground Unionism may not play well outside the ‘Pale’ (great phrase of Peter Brown’s!) – That said I would define ‘the Pale’ in a broader sense than him – roughly seven constituencies, encompassing South Antrim, East Antrim, South Belfast, East Belfast, North Down, Strangford and Lagan Valley.

    As things currently stand, with polls placing the UUP on 9% and Alliance on 8%, the UUP would fall behind Alliance in all of these constituencies, and fall far behind in some of them. Furthermore, whilst these are only 7 out of 18 constituencies, more than half of pro-Union voters reside here.

    The danger is that the UUP, even in the Unionist heartland east of the Bann, is falling into third place behind Alliance.

    If the UUP let the AP take on the mantle of primary unionist opposition to the DUP it would be curtains for the UUP, and also very bad for all unionists, in that a constitutionally-neutral party occupies the centre ground.

    I would imagine even traditional Unionists would feel it desirable that a pro-Union party, however liberal, occupies this ground should there be a consent referendum on the future of the Union.

    I think the danger is that many traditional Unionists despise Liberal Unionism so much that they are perhaps in danger of cutting off their nose to spite their face!

  • Unimpartial Observer

    To answer fair_deal: i would think the UUP’s raison d’etre and central purpose should be to build up a Shared Future Within The Union – and to thus help build the broadest possible consensus behind the pro-Union case for any future referendum.

  • fair_deal


    That is a role masquerading as a raison d’etre

  • Ian

    “Unionist parties also need to educate their voters to transfer to SDLP. I think I’m right in saying that the Provos won seats that would otherwise have gone to SDLP had the latter received unionist transfers.”

    If the SDLP had taken one more seat last time at the expense of SF, then they would have been only one seat short of taking an extra Ministerial post, but not at the expense of SF – they would have taken one of the UUP’s posts.

    If that had occurred then the SDLP may well have done a deal with Dr Deeney in West Tyrone, with him joining their grouping in return for the Health portfolio.

    Thus Unionists transferring to the SDLP to limit SF’s seat count could have had the unintended consequence of wiping out the Unionist majority on the Executive.

  • Unimpartial Observer

    FD: I would disagree. There is no other pro-Union grouping actively committed to building a Shared Future within the Union.

    The DUP-SF coalition strike me as merely committed to managing a divided future as best they can.

    Also, as a Unionist I believe in the essential unity of all the peoples of the UK, so the concept of a ‘Shared Future’ sits very comfortably and naturally with my Unionism.

  • with different leading figures making contradictory suggestions and attracting pratically no one except DUP and Alliance vultures to gobble up whatever is left of the vote

    We circle and we feed, but the more we feed, the hungrier we become. There’s no tastier meal than the former “natural party of government”. In fact, if there’s one thing that unites the entire Northern Ireland political spectrum, it’s amusement at the predicament of the UUP.

    Hey look, Billy Armstrong is speaking in the Assembly. It’s dinner time again!

    In theory if everyone voted fown the ballot then numbers of candidates wouldn’t make a difference. In practice people don’t therefore anyone who knows anything about elections knows that limiting the numbers of candidates your party runs to realistic levels is necessary.

    Exactly. For an example of how this can cost people seats in practice, look at how Unionism turned just over 3 Quotas into 2 seats in South Belfast.

  • I think it’s worth pointing out that the term “liberal unionism” as used about elements of the UUP is frequently misunderstood to imply an equivocal attitude to the Union. Actually liberal unionism is much more rooted in the traditions of UK liberal democracy than the DUP and retains much more fealty to the UK’s institutions.

  • Unimpartial Observer

    Well said Ziznivy!

    And Sammy’s quote is a slugger classic! –

    Hey look, Billy Armstrong is speaking in the Assembly. It’s dinner time again!

  • Dewi

    Just to clarify that my counting Poles is not in vain does the citizenship criteria apply to a Border Poll ?…………..

  • Liberal Unionism refers to a late 19th Century British political movement that has long since lost any relevance to contemporary politics in the United Kingdom.

    How apposite to a discussion about the Ulster Unionist Party.

  • dewi

    I meant to say Border Pole of course…..