Defections are never easy. Sinn Fein get stick every time for asking for their seat back every time they get hit by one, but it is a double blow to party colleagues. You lose the asset and your opponents gain what you lose. In the case of Christy Burke, there was at least a sense that his Dublin seat was his more than the party’s… With Louise Minihan – who was co-opted, elected and then defected in pretty short order – the opposite was the case. Ian’s rise in Alliance was partly due to his own obvious talent but also due to his exposure in a European election when he was given huge support by a party with barely the means to run a six county wide campaign.
It was a ruthless swipe on the part of the Tories, and one filled with a degree of strategic menace.Forget for a moment that Ian Parsley is still just a councillor, his departure has robbed the Alliance of a strong bet for a second Assembly seat. The Green party’s Stephen Agnew, also ran a good European campaign and managed to stack votes in critical wards in Bangor and Holywood that suggest he would be competitive in the next Assembly elections. At the very least the defection has put paid to that second seat. The party will be hard pushed to find another likely candidate.
The Alliance vote is a key Tory target in their efforts to carve a new centre right out of the ruins of Northern Ireland’s traditional politics of sectarian carve up… Where better to start than with the posher areas of greater Belfast? Copy that onto South Antrim and at least the Banbridge end of Upper Bann and you have the bones of a coherent, and executable Tory strategy emerging.
I say Tory, because that strategy doesn’t fit with some of the recent utterances from the Ulster Unionists. During the summer, David McNarry allowed his legitimate anger at not being able to view the finals’ day of the World Athletics Championship to seamlessly transpose itself into a conspiracy theory about the BBC having a united Ireland agenda. ‘That’, as those martial penguins in the animated film Madigascar say, ‘won’t fly’ with the Tories’ ideal of post sectarian politics.
The UUP have the numbers, but the Tories have demonstrated the kind of pulling power the Ulster Unionists have lacked for some years now to draw talent into the partnership (and that’s even before Ashcroft’s marginal millions hit town).
One question out of all of this remains. Who alerted the press in the first place?
There has been some tough horse trading going on inside the two parties for some time over exactly who will appear on the final candidate’s lists for Westminster. Raised voices, Slugger hears, but in firmly locked rooms. And much muttering over ‘leaked emails’.
It remains to be seen whether this was a shot administered directly to the foot, or some subtle form of sabotage.
As for Parsley, and defectors generally: well whatever their fate across the water, in Northern Ireland the UUP’s last high profile defectors, Jeffrey Donaldson and Arlene Foster haven’t done so badly… IJP’s fate is in his own hands from here on out…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty