By elections Arlene Foster and HMS Warspite

The news that Arlene Foster would fight the Enniskillen council by election has been heavily trailed and as such comes as no surprise. This does, however, represent clever politics by the DUP.During the Battle of Narvik in the Second World War the German destroyers had done fairly well against the British. However, the British then brought up reinforcements in the overwhelming shape of the battleship HMS Warspite. She proceeded to sail down the fjord in which the Germans were by now hiding and promptly sank all the German ships. Her captain reportedly said it was like “shelling peas.” Without wishing to disparage Mrs. Foster, in this context she seems to be playing Warspite to the UUP’s German destroyers.

Arlene Foster is very definitely the biggest current name in Fermanagh unionism and should be able to attract a large personal vote as well as promoting loyalty and hard work from the party canvassers; I have little doubt a major effort will be put in by the DUP on this occasion. The DUP are very keen to avoid another Dromore and this is in some ways an easier situation for them than Dromore. There may not be a TUV candidate (I have not heard) and the DUP are very clearly putting up one of their biggest hitters and presenting this as a straight fight to stop republicans gaining another seat. In such a climate it is unlikely that the UUP will have a realistic chance of defeating the DUP.

If the DUP loose the seat to SF there will no doubt be some who wish to calculate that this implies a further erosion of unionist support in Fermanagh. That might distress the DUP but would also give further weight to Robinson’s appeals for unionist unity. The DUP will also be able to point out that this seat would never have been lost but for Bertie Kerr of the UUP objecting to a co-option. In such circumstances the DUP were never likely to accept and had relatively little to gain from a unity candidate.

For the UUP this by election is now beginning to look unwinnable. Against the might of Foster even Tom Elliott, Fermanagh’s most senior UUP representative, failed in the last Westminster election; ensuring in the process that Gildernew held the seat for SF. If the UUP run they are likely to suffer either a heavy defeat or hand the seat to SF. Humiliating as it is, since they forced the election; the best option for the UUP might now be to stand aside. Even that of course has major problems. To stand aside would show the inferiority of the UUP’s position which would further give the lie to Reg Empey’s claims that the UUP can become once again the largest unionist party. To stand aside might be especially galling for the Fermanagh UUP which is a large and successful local party whereas until relatively recently the Fermanagh DUP were much smaller. The reality of the situation is now, however, that in the overwhelming majority of Northern Ireland the DUP is the strongest unionist party and also has the most prominent and powerful politicians.

Victory for the DUP in Fermanagh would probably steady a few nerves after Dromore. However, the fact that they are forced to bring in the heavy artillery (or battleship) in the shape of Foster does show that they are far from hegemony within unionism. (Incidentally the admiralty’s decision to send Warspite was in part because of embarrassment regarding their initial failure to gain a convincing victory). It also, clever politics as it is, might show a degree of anxiety that the DUP fear negative momentum following Dromore and conceivably take the idea that the UUP are on the way back seriously (though I doubt they truly fear that).

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