I used the analogy of Pandora’s Box and Chaos Theory nine months ago so I hope I am allowed to reuse it. In Greek mythology, Pandora’s Box was a box which contained all the bad things in the world which escaped when opened. Now it is often used for a dangerous and unpredictable set of events. Chaos theory is, I believe, somewhat similar essentially this is about the unpredictability of complex systems and manifests itself in such a way that the behaviour of chaotic systems appears to be random (well according to Wikipedia).
I would suggest that the up coming European election is one of the most complex we have seen in many years here and as such is pretty unpredictable. The DUP are quoting a European prediction which has already been mentioned on slugger. It may be correct: however, to be fair the Northern Ireland bit is only a very brief part of the document and I am unclear if the experts quoted are actually experts in NI politics. Finally even if the result is one seat each for DUP, SF and UUP / NF, the minutiae of the total votes will be picked over in withering detail. I do not make predictions so I will not comment but I would suggest that this will be a very difficult election to know how all the variables will play out.
I will do unionism and try to do nationalism / republicanism another time.
The DUP have a new candidate; maybe not their first choice but for all that, still a good choice. She is from the hard line wing of the party and has name recognition, yet she is far from being seen as on the nutter end of the spectrum. A fundamentalist yet not someone who has made any way out or ridiculous statements which might concern the new more liberal frequently urban middle class DUP support. Running Dodds is I would suggest a much better idea than say running William McCrea who at times seems in the political wilderness. It is also a better idea than resurrecting a name from the past like they did with Jim Allister last time. Dodds also has the respect of all unionists for taking a seat from SF in West Belfast, no mean feat. She seems to be working pretty hard, the DUP website has descriptions of her going all over the place, pressing the flesh and addressing people. She is never going to have the charisma of Dr. Paisley but to dismiss her as a light weight would be very foolish, she seems personable enough and she has a very efficient party machine behind her.
In addition to Dodds’s abilities the DUP can point to the achievements of Stormont. Many may be negatives in stopping SF’s agenda but they are still achievements: saving academic selection has been messy in the extreme but Ruane has taken almost all the damage and although I have never fully understood why it is an orange / green issue, the DUP have clearly won on it. The DUP have also destroyed the Maze stadium and are stalling the Shrine though personally I think there are dangers on that score. The complete absence of an Irish language act is a further gain for them.
However there are negatives for the DUP. This is the first full scale election since the DUP went into power sharing with Sinn Fein and no one can really know what unionists think: some may be pleased and may start voting DUP, some may be neutral, some hostile but willing to stick with the DUP, some will be spoiling for a chance to take revenge on the DUP. Opinion polls are notoriously inaccurate in Northern Ireland and the relative popularity of each of these positions is actually unknowable. Other negatives for the DUP must include the Swish family Robinson and the rest of the money making allegations. Whoever coined the Swish family was very clever: it will, I suspect, stick for quite some time. There are some within the unionist community who may think they have been clever and that it is laudable. However, I would suggest that the majority will be fairly unimpressed: unimpressed enough to punish Diane Dodds at the polls? Some no doubt but how many is unclear. Robinson certainly seemed rattled and his outburst at Martina Purdy looked very poor, especially as Purdy is very much the polite reasoned analyst (okay I am a big fan) but highly impressive as she is at what she does, she is not an attack journalist like Jeremy Paxman or John Humphries. As such Robinson’s attack was very ill judged. For him to then have to stand there seeming to roll his eyes in disgust at Purdy whilst his friend McGuinness supported him looked very poor. Again, however, it was a moment for politicos and not so interesting to real people. Also it and the Swish business are now a long time before the election.
Provided the DUP manage to avoid banana skins more successfully I doubt they will suffer that much long term harm. June is still a fair way away; however if they have some more mistakes in the near future then a pattern may develop and I have always maintained that momentum in politics is very important. The economy (the subject of Purdy’s question) is also a problem and that may yet come back to haunt the DUP. Although they are completely innocent on it, the major party of government may be the one blamed.
Another possible danger is protest votes. Northern Ireland has never really done protest votes but it is possible that now with a government which will inevitably do things which annoy some that a few disgruntled voters will decide to punish the DUP. The fact that for many years the DUP was in a way a party of protest makes the situation a bit more difficult for them: many of their voters especially their traditional ones probably tend towards protest voting.
The best strategy for the DUP is, however, fairly obvious. I would suggest that they need to accentuate the positives from their viewpoint of devolution, which of course includes things they have stopped. They should also point up the superiority for unionists (and for general competence) of their tenure of government as compared to Trimble’s. In this they are always helped by the now near legendary incompetence of Trimble led unionism. In the years since his fall the narrative that Trimble’s leadership and assembly were a disaster has become accepted by almost everyone within unionism. Indeed for UUP members to challenge that orthodoxy is to open themselves to the charge of being Trimblites which is simply an updated version of Lundies.
Answering Allister and the TUV’s challenge calls for the DUP to point to the Sinn Fein agenda and pronounce that if the TUV had their way, Stormont would fall and the British government would give Sinn Fein all that they desire. In this they are helped by the fact that Hain used exactly such threats to help force the DUP to accept power sharing.
Clearly the DUP need to conduct themselves in a suitably hard line unionist fashion between now and the election. No more talk of the devolution of policing and justice (unless it involves political life times). I would also suggest a minimum number of joint appearance between Robinson and McGuinness. As I have noted previously the body language is a lot less frosty than previously and people may pick up on that which would be potentially detrimental to the DUP cause. Wheeling out Nelson McCausland to lambaste Adams would be useful as would allowing others to have a go at favourite targets: David Simpson after Francie Molloy and various people after Francie Brolly would make good sense.
In addition pointing to the other two parties and suggesting that a vote for them will create a SF first past the post is a possible line. However, I may be incorrect but I have got the impression that recently the DUP have been talking less about topping the poll. That is probably a sensible strategy as it does look like a difficult ask: not impossible but possibly better not to talk it up too much as a failure to do so would hand a bigger PR victory to Sinn Fein. Another issue which is interesting is that if Diane Dodds does do badly the damage may by extension hurt Robinson’s only serious potential challenger: Nigel Dodds. Overall, however, I think Diane Dodds was a pretty good choice in the absence of any bigger names (of the sane variety) being willing to go forward. The DUP will no doubt run a very good on the ground campaign (they always tend to). However, the other variables make this in many ways the highest risk election they have fought in many years.