The New Force seems to have something of a spring in its step. This may be real and genuine or it may be enforced jollity and confidence. To use a Second World War analogy they may be Stalin at Yalta thinking happily about how to carve up Eastern Europe or Hitler in his bunker discussing his plans for postwar Berlin.
The relative victory of Jim Nicholson has been repeatedly trumpeted by the New Force as suggesting that it is on its way back. It may represent a Dead Cat Bounce but it may be something more. The Conservative bit of the New Force are certainly making a major play of the possibility of expanding the tent and bringing in the garden centre unionists, some pro union Catholics and now also Alliance types.
Gaining the garden centre vote has always been one of the Holy Grails of moderate unionism. The Conservatives feel that they may be particularly well suited to this task: they point to the fact that in polls most unionists regard themselves as relatively conservative; in addition people always proclaim that they want their politicians to tackle bread and butter issues, rather than obsess about orange green ones. There are of course problems with the Garden centre vote: it is notoriously difficult to get out as Trimble found to his cost. To an extent he got them out to back the agreement but they retreated back into the shrub section when he needed them to save his political career. In addition of course we are unclear on exactly how liberal those garden centre unionists are: some may be in actual fact very hard line unionists and if they did vote would not back the New Force (grumpy garden centre unionists).
The other Holy Grail (or to some unionists Love that dare not speak its name) is of course that other mythical group (the unionist Catholic). This group is continuously identified by various opinion polls (the same sorts of polls which predicted DUP annihilation just before the 2005 Westminster elections). It almost certainly does exist (like the various big cats which are sighted in the British Isles) but its size and political relevance is of course hotly disputed. It would be extremely foolish for a new political party like the New Force to ignore the possibility of this group. However, to be certain that this avalanche of unionist Catholics will sweep the New Force to victory is probably at least somewhat optimistic. In addition of course it has to be recognised that the less New (Ulster Unionist) bit of the New Force has a history which does not help it gain Catholic votes. That legacy may well be diminishing but it still exists and a sudden step change with vast numbers of Catholics turning to the New Force is unlikely.
The final group who seem to be a sensible target for the New Force are the Alliance voters, they at least definitely exist and do seem to have a pretty definite political profile: largely middle class within the Pale. Despite Alliance’s supposedly liberal stance on right left issues, most (though not all) of these voters are probably moderately right wing and would feel fairly happy voting Cameron Conservative. As such the Alliance vote although potentially the smallest (who knows how many more unionist Catholics there are than big cats on Exmoor) is likely to be the most productive seam of new New Force voters.
Turning to the UUP bit of the Force
Many in the UUP seem to feel (in direct contrast to their new friends in the NI Conservatives) that Jim Nicholson’s victory in the European election was the start of the return to the natural order of things with the majority of unionists voting for the UUP and the DUP being a minority to be smiled at indulgently and asked for second preference votes but not actually taken too seriously. In that narrative the Conservative link up might have garnered a few votes but was of little importance and going forwards (or preferably backwards) the UUP would return to its rightful place. Whilst Conservatives suggest that the New bit of the New Force drove Nicholson’s victory, the UUP seem to feel that it was simply the unionist electorate coming to their senses and stopping voting for the DUP.
In addition it seems that many in the leadership tier of the UUP are trying to cross the DUP’s T. Whatever the exact UUP (or New Force) position on policing and justice Empey seems set to continue to oppose P&J devolution at least for the time being (using Robinson’s own mantra of unionist confidence). In addition other leading UUP representatives have been making fairly hard line comments recently (not only McNarry) but also the likes of Danny Kennedy on the Irish language.
This strategy might be quite clever if the whole show sticks together. If the UUP can with good old fashioned positions and rhetoric eat into what was once the harder line element of the UUP vote throughout most of the province and defected en masse to the DUP over the past 15 or so years, they may be able to mount a serious challenge in places like South Antrim, East Antrim, East Londonderry, Upper Bann etc. which were once their bedrock seats. If they can make serious inroads there by being at least as hard line as the DUP whilst their friends in the Conservatives can mop up the leafy bits of the Pale such as North Down and maybe even South Belfast then the New force really could return to political dominance. This has of course to an extent been done before, it was what drove the old Unionist Party for years. In the 1980s and early 1990s again under an uncharismatic and under rated leader, Jim Molyneaux, the party managed to contain both Nelson McCausland and John Gorman and gradually pegged back the DUP. If the New Force can recreate such a system and simultaneously pull in Alliance voters and find a substantial number of unionist Catholic supporters then truly (to misquote): Their’s will be the Earth (or at least NI) and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – they’ll be a Party my son!
Of course the reality may be vastly less good for the New Force. There is also the danger that the internal contradictions of having David McNarry and Ian Parsley in sort of the same political party could destroy the whole project. There is also the fact that some in the UUP may feel that the whole Conservative thing is a handy political wheeze but not really that relevant and that they certainly do not want the NI (or even GB) Tories ordering them around and changing their policies. The fact that the Conservatives have gained recent political converts is also unlikely to cut that much ice and gaining Deirdre Nelson and Ian Parsley may seem less attractive than the likelihood of losing Sylvia Hermon.
Some in the Conservatives may on the other hand be planning to completely gobble up the UUP and turn it into an addendum on the Conservative brand like the National Liberal Party from 1948 1968. To them the backwoods men of the UUP are a rather embarrassing impediment (possibly similar to the way Cameron may regard the likes of Lord Tebbit) and whilst their votes may be useful they would hardly be allowed into polite company (not being owners of man bags or similar). To some in the Conservative wing of the New Force the strategy must be to gradually remove these dreadful people and replace them with more suitable candidates possessing the correct qualities (such as the aforementioned man bag, I cannot think of a female equivalent).
Of course the reality is likely to fall between these two extremes but there is a danger that the New Force is attempting the political version of spreading too much bread with too little butter. The simple reality is that they do not have a vast wealth of realistic candidates to put forward at the next Westminster election. Most of the UUP potentials have already been defeated by the DUP and if they are to win any seats it will require the help of that other party which the UUP will talk about but must make the Conservatives almost physically ill the TUV. Only with the TUV splitting off a large segment of the DUP vote are New Force candidates outside the Pale likely to defeat the incumbent DUP MPs.
The newer candidates such as now apparently Ian Parsley may have a great future but they could look worrying like the Young Turks the UUP put up at Westminster last time to fight the DUP. I still remember Martina Purdy’s whithering assessment of them as Lambs to the Slaughter. If Parsley stands in North Down for the Conservatives I suspect he will be handing the seat to Sylvia Hermon as much of the Alliance vote may defect to her if she has left the UUP rather than move with Parsley to the New Force. In addition Hermon could probably rely on keeping some of her personal support, and traditional UUP types when presented with two turncoats (Weir and Parsley) may stick with with Hermon. You turn if you want to: the Lady’s not for turning; (though Sylvia might not support the woman who first said it).
To mention Deirdre Nelson again before I finish: her potential candidacy for North Antrim might begin to show that some in the NI Tories can actually think very tactically, or it might demonstrate just how desperate things are for the UUP and Conservatives in North Antrim. If Deirdre Nelson is the New Force candidate in North Antrim the person likely to gain most must be Jim Allister as Nelson is hardly likely to be seen as a serious candidate by most UUP voters (due to her previous UUP bashing) and is most unlikely to attract many DUP voters. As such UUP types will know that there is only one way to hurt the DUP in North Antrim (by voting for Allister) and that fact along with DUP defections to Jim Allister would surely make Allister an even bigger threat to whichever DUP standard bearer has to face him. If the Conservatives have begun to think that one through maybe contrary to Ms. Nelson’s previous remarks they have truly begun to understand how the game is played here.
I used to think that the most likely scenario for the UUP was gradual decline into oblivion: that was maybe (only maybe) too harsh. However, going back to my Second World war analogy I doubt they are Stalin: they may still be Hitler dreaming about Germania as the T 34s rumbled about Berlin or if they are lucky it may just possibly be (to steal another quotation) Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.