The BBC are reporting that Arlene Foster has said that she would stand aside for an agreed unionist candidate to take on Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh / South Tyrone at the general election.
Foster said : “…if I do step aside or need to step aside for a unionist unity candidate it’s something that I will do because it’s in the better interests of unionism.
“It doesn’t mean necessarily that I wouldn’t want to be there on occasions, but if it has to be done it has to be done and I will do it.” Whilst Arlene Foster might like to be MP, it is clear that unless there is a unity candidate unionism is most unlikely to retake FST. Furthermore, there is considerable the animosity between the DUP and UUP in FST and many UUP members remain annoyed with Foster personally for having jumped ship from the UUP to the DUP. Hence, any personal ambition she may have to be an MP is unrealistic, at least in the short term, and as such her standing aside is maybe less painful for her than if she had a good chance of being elected. In addition since the DUP’s decision to enter power sharing with the UUP, support for the DUP seems to have dropped in FST. Although Foster herself won the Enniskillen by election, easily defeating the UUP candidate; areas outside that district electoral area seem to have swung more firmly against the DUP. In the European election there was some suggestion that although some small unionist towns like Lisbellaw (within the Enniskillen DEA) stayed loyal to the DUP, others such as Kesh and Ballinamallard and the unionist vote in the border areas of West and South Fermanagh has moved away from the DUP. The South Tyrone part of FST has also been suggested to have become more disenchanted with the DUP following their entry into government with Sinn Fein.
In view of all of this it was quite possible that if Arlene Foster were to stand again against Tom Elliott for the Westminster election, she might come off second best in the intra unionist contest: the opposite result to the 2005 election. Such an outcome would be a bit of a blow to the DUP and, hence, for Foster to offer to stand aside is further good politics as it will then increase the pressure on Tom Elliott to do likewise and help allow an agreed civic unionist candidate to emerge. Although Norman Baxter has ruled himself out, he may come under renewed pressure to reconsider his position and indeed the CUs may be put under pressure to allow some form of words to be devised which could permit an agreed candidate to be less than a fully fledged member of the Conservative Party should they win at the general election.
All the above also leaves aside the effect that an agreed unionist candidate would have on nationalist / republican voting intentions. Although Fearghal McKinney the former UTV presenter has declared his intention of running for the SDLP, this is a seat which would require a seismic shift in voting for the SDLP to win. Rather it is quite possible that an agreed unionist candidate would result in an even larger percentage of the nationalist vote supporting Michelle Gildernew in an attempt to head off a unionist victory. It might also reduce any tendency to a fall in Gildernew’s hard line vote from those who object to Sinn Fein’s supposed compromises. Though few would see Ms. Gildernew as on the moderate wing of Sinn Fein; Fermanagh seems to have amongst the largest percentage of republicans who object to the new dispensation. If there were a single unionist candidate, then the SDLP might, paradoxically find a reduction in its vote despite their new high profile candidate and the election might begin to approximate to the bitter head count battles of 1981 when the SDLP failed to stand against either Bobby Sands or Owen Carron.