As unionist plans for consolidation, nationalism drifts towards complacency…

Reg Empey has let it be known, that my old friend and co-author of Slugger’s A Long Peace document, Trevor Ringland has made the last two in the Ulster Unionist party’s nomination to become parliamentary candidate for Peter Robinson’s East Belfast constituency… According to Gerry Moriarty:

The prospect of Mr Ringland running in East Belfast comes amid continuing moves by the UUP, the DUP and the British Tories to determine whether they can agree a realignment within unionism to prevent Sinn Féin winning enough seats in Assembly elections that would allow Martin McGuinness to take the First Minister post.

These discussions, according to well-placed sources, are also exploring whether there could be some form of pact ahead of the Westminster elections, notwithstanding the commitment by the UUP and the British Conservatives that under the umbrella of UCUNF (Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force) they will stand candidates in each of the North’s 18 constituencies.

The second stage of the nomination process was completed on Thursday evening. Given the withdrawal of the Tory candidate, Deirdre Nelson the decision now lies with Reg Empey himself. If this is an indication of his thinking, we might take Ringland as his own working choice.

It’s been my own reckoning is that Robinson’s troubles would have brought the seat within striking distance for the Ulster Unionists, although we be looking more at a three way split such as first brought Robinson to Westminster in 1979 just a few hundred votes ahead of sitting Ulster Unionist MP Bill Craig and Alliance party leader Oliver Napier. In the event of a consolidation between the two major Unionist parties, Trevor could even have a free run against one of the strongest Alliance party candidates in over a generation, Naomi Long.

You kind of get a sense from that possible scenario of the kinds of resources a unionist consolidation might free up in pushing up its own overall representation. One credible Unionist candidate in South Belfast would almost certainly take the seat from Alisdair McDonnell, and with another, Tom Elliott perhaps, running in Fermanagh South Tyrone you could not disregard the possibility of them taking one against the head in the form of Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein.

Even the TUV would win out of such consolidation, if the result was the moving of those who continually applied pressure on Peter Robinson not to move on policing and justice to the TUV. Not bad for a party that was little more than a blog in the last Assembly election three years ago.

Of course, that’s all speculation for now. But it gives you a sense of what is animating some individuals inside Unionism just now. The contrast with nationalism, in which all sense of competition appears to have drained from a complacent Sinn Fein which no longer fears its own electorate and the SDLP who have long since stopped looking for the political football, could hardly be greater…

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