Towards the end of the Roman Empire the Roman legions were called home from the more distant parts of the empire to strengthen the defences of Rome itself. This was a very sound strategic decision but marked the beginning of the end of Rome as the great imperial power. In a similar fashion the British had maintained dominance of the world’s oceans from the end of the Napoleonic Wars often with small old fashioned cruiser squadrons like the China squadron. However, with the rise of other sea powers at the very end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Royal Navy concentrated its resources nearer home; a wise move but again a sign that the days of total naval dominance were over. The recent confirmation by Peter Robisnon that double jobbing would be phased out later but would be allowed to continue for this Westminster election has been covered by Kilsally below. It is undoubtedly the correct strategy for the DUP and may well help them to minimise the number of seats they lose at the next elections. However, it seems a little like calling home the legions.
As recently as late 2007, following the 2005 Westminster and the 2007 Stormont elections the DUP seemed poised for complete and indefinite electoral dominance. The UUP had been humbled with every prospect that they would continue to gradually wither; their best talent having been poached by the DUP and the rest left to fight over an ever diminishing share of the vote. Following their crushing victories it might well have seemed possible for the DUP to run less well known candidates and still have them elected on the strength of the brand and the certainty that the DUP was the real force within unionism.
Now, however assailed by the New Force which rightly or wrongly has gained considerable confidence and in fairness has gained a little electorally from the European election and the lurking menace of the TUV; the DUP cannot assume that its position is secure. Hence, to keep on the big names for this Westminster election campaign makes extremely good political sense. It should guarantee the DUP holding the likes of East Belfast and must make DUP holds in the likes of Strangford, Lagan Valley, South and East Antrim and East Londonderry more likely: though still by no means certain.
The decision to keep multiple mandates does also raises its own problems. The accusations over double jobbing and family dynasties were significant blows to the DUP at the European election and will no doubt have accounted for some of the damage the DUP suffered in that election. Although Robinson has stated that people will not receive multiple salaries there is the danger that people will feel that somehow MPs who are also MLAs will gain a pecuniary advantage: that may well be completely unfair but still the whiff of multiple salaries and the Swish Family will linger and linger more than it would have done had the DUP felt able to run less well known names.
An additional problem for Robinson is that running all the same names again looks extremely like a U turn on his behalf. Although his infamous letter of May this year did not specify when dual mandates would be phased out his later suggestions seemed to imply that it would occur at this Westminster election. Hence, his latest proposals at least feel like a U turn.
A further problem is that recycling the same names again limits the ability of the DUP to bring forward new talent. This, in the short term, may not matter much but ,as it goes on, it makes the party feel older and less attractive to young talent. Already they have lost a few talented younger members such as Deirdre Nelson and if the faces never change other younger people may feel that their chances of a political career in the DUP are limited if they are not from one of the leading families.
Despite all these problems, from a DUP perspective, it is most likely that allowing the old guard to run again is wise. Most of the individual politicians in question seem very popular in their local parties and at least reasonably so with the unionist electorate in each constituency. As such, running these politicians is the most likely strategy to minimise slippage to the CUs and TUV.
To minimise slippage and if possible to ensure no loss of seats is vital. If the DUP could achieve this they would, at a stroke, have deprived their rivals of significant political momentum. The CUs have made much of the fact that any MP elected from Northern Ireland would be potentially eligible to join Cameron’s government and possibly, if they had the talent, to become a cabinet minister. That is a significant carrot to hold out and would chime with many unionists long held feelings that we should be more involved in national politics. In addition it would feel to some like a further cementing of the union as having a seat at the top table would be perceived as making us, if not quite as British as Finchley, at least as British as somewhere on the Welsh borders (maybe as British as Hereford).
After all that hype from the CUs, if Robinson could engineer them having no MPs, it would be a massive psychological blow; one which although probably not fatal to the CUs would put them right back where they were prior to the European election. To ensure no CU gains is difficult for the DUP but the chances are considerably enhanced by bringing back the battleships: indeed as a small example this strategy achieved exactly its aim in the Enniskillen by election.
The same possibilities must also be influencing Robinson when he turns to consider the threat from the TUV. In North Antrim running Dr. Paisley might stave off the threat from Jim Allister and the old man might yet be able to pull off one final victory (though there is no guarantee). In the other seats where the TUV fancy their chances (East Antrim, East Londonderry, Lagan Valley) again running the big names minimises the chances of a TUV victory just as it does of a CU one. As with the CUs, the failure of the TUV to gain any Westminster seats would be a blow. In one way less of a blow to them as at least prior to Europe few fully realised their level of support (and I would argue even now few of the media cognoscenti fully appreciate the depth of that support). However, if the TUV gained no seats at Westminster, no matter how well they did, it would be at least another year before they could gain political representation beyond that of local council level. That would then be two years since Jim Allister was Euro MP and there would inevitably be a loss of that vital ingredient political momentum. It could also be used to justify a considerable reduction in the attention the media give to the TUV.
Clearly then Robisnon’s plan to send the old battleships into action is the wisest. It is, however, in many ways a decision borne from a position of relative weakness: certainly as compared to the DUP’s zenith in 2007. However, those who think that decision is likely to herald an early destruction for the DUP may be sorely mistaken. Remember that even after Rome called home her legions she was still a formidable military organisation. Or possibly more appositely the CUs and TUV need to remember that the Royal Navy called home her ships to face the threat of the Kaiser’s fleet. Although that may have been a sign of the beginnings of the end of the British naval dominance it did not save the Germans from defeat at the hands of the same Royal Navy in the First World War.