Who will the UUs choose to run for South Belfast…

Slugger hears that Bob Stoker and Michael McGimpsey are the only candidates that will square off for the party’s South Belfast candidature for Westminster… That’s not a surprise, but given how McGimpsey bombed both in 2005 – losing a formerly safe UU seat to the SDLP’s Alisdair McDonnell conceding third place to a virtual unknown DUP candidate in the process – and then managed to chip even more off his total in 2007 it is a pretty poor back to the future scenario for the party. The Tory candidate, Peter McCann, is a recent arrival into politics (and possibly too Catholic for many in Donegall Pass, Sandy Road Row and Taughmonagh). Can he really expect to have a viable run at the seat?

Update: As DW points out down below, the selection meeting has not taken place yet (the first word I had last night was that it was in progress, but then turned it wasn’t)… Both the above are standing. Paula has not voiced publicly her position on standing. I am told there is one other considering the possibility of doing so. So although I stand by the thrust of my analysis below, I put my hand up on screwing up the significant detail of the facts of the story…This is a seat that needed a big name to get the UUs over the win line this time out… Handing it back to a pair of old hands would certainly give the DUP something to run at, given how last time Jimmy Spratt picked up 29.6% to McGimpsey’s 22.2%. Indeed Spratt used a piece in the South Belfast News today to remind the UUs they could do a deal over the seat, just like they used to do in the past…

But Spratt himself is unlikely to be good enough this time out either. Whilst he was only just short of the mark the last time, the TUV effect (however weak or strong it proves) will likely tip the seat even further away from him. But the DUP still have time to contemplate their precise response to the Ulster Unionist/Conservaitve choice here. Could they choose a game changing candidate?

McDonnell got 30.1% last time, marginally ahead of Spratt. But he has had the opportunity to dig in to the constituency which may help him in turn dig further into Sinn Fein and Alliance votes than he did in 05. Last time out he got little public sympathy from Sinn Fein’s leadership, and in the case of the Alliance they now have a sitting MLA in the constituency whose vote they will be very keen to preserve. So even for McDonnell it will be a matter of squeezing out votes from wherever he find get them.

Even if McDonnell is a notional favourite, I would not like to call the overall winner… Still without a deal with the DUP neither the Minister for Health nor councillor Stoker will take the seat back for the Ulster Unionists, which may be just as well, since the Conservatives began the day with this little number on the evils of double-jobbing:

“The Conservatives were the first party in Northern Ireland to call for an end to double-jobbing in Northern Ireland. Voters want full-time MLAs, MPs and MEPs and rightly believe they currently get a raw deal when some of their elected politicians split their time between Stormont and Westminster.

“We have introduced amendments to legislation that are aimed at ending double-jobbing by Northern Ireland politicians at Stormont and Westminster. They are also intended to ensure that all decisions on MLAs’ salaries, allowances and pensions are made by a third party, as at Westminster. We believe the current situation is wrong and should end.”

So if the seat is unlikely to change hands this time round, if the UCU-NF are planning a two phase play then neither Stoker nor McGimpsey make sense. The one new party player that had been in the frame, Paula Bradshaw, is now believed out of the running. But as the Tories’ battleground director Marion Little told Slugger earlier this year:

“This is not about one election. We need candidates who will speak to all parts of society. We’ve seen success in England come over two election cycles from candidates who were prepared to get down and connect with people outside traditional Conservative voting communities”

That leaves us with the possibility that McCann is the unlikely dark horse that breaks through the middle. It would be a risky strategy… One, because by backing an unknown it risks the DUP gaining incumbency first, ie before McCann has had time to get his feet under some of the more prosperous tables of south Belfast.

And two, it would be predicated on the far from proven assumption that the legendary Garden Centre Prod (those 150k who came out to vote yes in the referendum, but whom appear to have given up on politics ever since) will respond positively to the opportunity to vote for a post sectarian choice in a seat with a significant slice of wealthy Catholic middle class residents…

And yet, stranger things have happened at sea… At the very least, McCann would be a credible fulfillment of the Conservative party’s promise to desectarianise its offering in Northern Ireland… And a decent litmus test for any other party foolish enough to want to try and break the bonds of our tribal past…

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