The French are officially counted one of the victors of the Second World War: unfortunately everyone apart from our Gallic friends knows that victory was delivered to them by others: they were in large measure the beneficiaries of the blood, toil, tears and sweat of others. It would be unfair to characterise the UUP’s position as the same as that of the French in the war but there are certain similarities.
The UUP’s current optimism is in large measure due to the DUP’s woes both regarding the TUV effect, the recent Irisgate scandals and the defeat they suffered at Hillsborough. The rest of the UUP’s enhanced position has been procured for them by the support (largely financial) of their Conservative partners. The UUP even in their position of power are, however, in danger of snatching if not defeat then stalemate from the jaws of victory. Alex Kane yesterday on the Politics show suggested that the CUs could come back with either zero or 4-5 seats and commented on what interesting candidates the CUs were putting forwards.
This may be true but the constituency profiles and the people selected for the seats thus far announced seem less than ideal and far from wholly encouraging for the CUs.East Belfast: Trevor Ringland
This may be a reasonable move in view of the high level of support Naomi Long attracts in the seat. A moderate unionist like Ringland might be expected to pick up a considerable number of Long’s normal voters keen to see someone other than Peter Robinson elected. However, that avoids the fact that with the TUV standing there is a chance that a multi way split in the unionist vote would let Alliance gain their first elected MP. Hence, Long will undoubtedly mount a major campaign and her supporters and workers will be buoyed up by the prospect of having a chance of her being elected. In that context Ringland might not get all the liberal votes he might otherwise reasonably expect.
The TUV will also of course be very keen to do well in the seat. It has some very hard line areas, a significant working class part and even many of the more affluent areas are far from liberal. In addition East Belfast is the home of the TUV’s opponent in chief Peter Robinson so they are likely to mount a major campaign and TUV supporters are unlikely to vote CU in order to knife Robinson as in a four way fight they have the possibility of victory.
All this leaves until the end the biggest issue. The biggest beast in East Belfast, arguably the biggest beast in Northern Ireland’s political landscape is Peter Robinson. He is not likely to give up without a fight and neither are his supporters nor party workers. Robinson has also emerged surprisingly little damaged from Irisgate and now very much has a point to prove. In such a context Robinson is going to be a hard man to beat whether by the CUs or by anyone else.
To be fair it is difficult to know what better candidate the CUs might have run: Empey has failed too many times against Robinson. A harder line candidate might have attracted some TUV leaning supporters though of course they will have their own candidate in what is a hard line constituency but that would have lost any Alliance support. Hence, Ringland is not a bad choice but expecting him to take the seat is probably over optimistic. However, as I always say I do not do predictions.
Strangford: Mike Nesbitt
The CUs may well see this seat as now amongst their most winnable targets and getting Mike Nesbitt as a major coup: they may be correct but again the constituency profile / candidate match is less than perfect. This seat was held by John Taylor prior to Iris Robinson’s victory and is again not an especially liberal area. Although the DUP are undoubtedly more bruised here than in any other seat in Northern Ireland they still have a number of decent local representatives whom they can move up to fight the Westminster seat. Again Nesbitt is not an especially enticing prospect for TUV voters who have their own candidate in Terry Williams and again must fancy their chances of an upset here. Nesbitt’s comments about Patricia MacBride’s brother and his possible initial support for Eames Bradley’s £12,000 are unlikely to endear him to TUV, DUP (or even some UUP) voters. Another major problem is the perception, however unjustified, that Nesbitt is a late convert to unionism and is a serial job leaver who finishes little that he has started but is out for the next interesting experience and tick in his personal list of been there done that.
Despite all that Strangford may well offer the CUs one of their best chances of a gain at Westminster but it might have been better to have chosen a more straightforward candidate for Strangford and run Nesbitt in the likes of South Belfast. In addition even if Mike Nesbitt is elected for them it could all yet turn to tears for the CUs in Strangford.
Lagan Valley: Daphne Trimble
This again looks like a remarkably bad decision. Jeffrey Donaldson is extremely well dug in here and short of some disaster which is as yet unforeseen he will remain the one to beat. Donaldson may be a political lightweight, may be prone to making foolish gaffes (such as that retention of the Full Time Reserve was a precondition for P&J devolution) and is clearly a bit too fond of blockbuster movies. However, he remains an overwhelmingly hard working and a popular constituency MP. Against him the TUV have put forward what must be their best candidate after Jim Allister. Keith Harbinson has proved a good campaigner and candidate and has a profile although far from huge, better than most TUV hopefuls.
Against this popular sitting MP and a good TUV candidate the CUs have decided to put Daphne Trimble. Mrs. Trimble is not known for much in the way of her political profile positive or negative but comes encumbered with the baggage of being the wife of the man who practically single handedly destroyed the party he inherited from Jim Molyneaux (once MP for Lagan Valley). Hence, Mrs. Trimble starts in an already difficult seat with additional handicaps albeit not entirely of her own making. The CUs may have calculated that they could not win this seat and so allowed Daphne to have a go but that also has dangers. The Trimble name anywhere on a CU ballot paper conjures up thoughts of abject failure; of endless lines in the sand meekly yet gracelessly surrendered and of an election campaign (2005) with that unforgettable line Decent People vote Unionist which if the Labour Party’s 1983 election manifesto was the longest suicide note in British political history, that UUP effort was a short snappy bullet to the brain. To allow the name that dare not speak its name (Trimble) to be uttered in this CU election is foolhardy. It reminds garden centre unionists and any Catholic unionists of what they used to dislike about the UUP (dancing down the Garvaghy Road); hard line unionists of a Lundy worse than the erstwhile governor of Londonderry himself and old fashioned UUP types of a period in their history they would rather forget.
Upper Bann: Harry Hamilton
This seat brings us to one of the worst of the CU’s errors and a demonstration of why if they do well at these elections it will truly be because of the victories won for them by the successes of the TUV and the errors of the DUP. Of all the constituencies with CU candidates announced this is arguably the most winnable. David Simpson’s grip on the seat is far from secure: it has always had a significant level of UUP support; even Trimble did not lose by that much in 2005 and there are still 2 UUP to 2 DUP MLAs.
However, this seat was once the stomping ground of Harold McCusker, a hard liner within the UUP and elected David Trimble in the pre Lundification days when he too was a hard line unionist. In contrast whilst Harry Hamilton is no doubt a likeable and competent person, even within current CU circles he is not regarded as particularly hard line. If Hamilton is to win this seat he needs to attract harder line support, something he is poorly equipped to do. In addition if the TUV do not stand (I have no inside information) he will need to appeal to their supporters to win and annoyed by David Simpson as TUVists may be they are likely to have limited enthusiasm to turn out to vote for the Freddie Mercury impersonator. The CUs can take little comfort from the Waringstown by election as that was in a middle class and (by Upper Bann standards) liberal part of the constituency in which the DUP did not stand and the TUV candidate was possibly less than perfect: hence, extrapolation is utterly meaningless
The folly of the CUs in picking Hamilton is magnified when one considers that one of, if not their most formidable politician: Danny Kennedy, is pointlessly being run in neighbouring Newry and Armagh. It is unclear whether or not Kennedy insisted on this but had anyone with tactical cunning been in charge in CU high command he should have been forced to run in Upper Bann. In the current circumstances whether the TUV run or not Simpson would have been packing his bags already had he been facing Kennedy. Instead although the seat is not yet lost for the CUs they are insisting on making it much more difficult and depriving a politician who might realistically have made it to a Conservative government of a chance of achieving his national potential.
It may be that the CUs will produce some more sensible decisions in the remaining seats which have yet to be announced. It may also be that such is the crisis within the DUP that the CUs can yet take some of the seats I have mentioned especially Strangford. However, the decisions made thus far in each of the winnable seats are extremely dubious and imply that the CUs have learnt little about the electoral landscape since they were unceremoniously destroyed in 2005. That they still have any chance is due to the hole the DUP have excavated for themselves. Like the French in the Second World War if the CUs come out of this as victors they must thank themselves less than almost all the other participants. Currently their tactics call to mind the brilliance of the Maginot Line.