The DUP: a steadying ship?

There is a little bit of the feeling of a phoney war to the election campaign at the moment. The candidates are being chosen but the battles at the moment are mere skirmishes as compared to what is to come. Clearly all can change and much will but as the process goes forward at the moment it is looking, on the unionist side, as if the DUP’s position is getting stronger rather than weaker.

The DUP are managing to put increasing distance between them and Irisgate, double jobbing, expenses etc., though all their political rivals may well be keeping their powder dry on those issues to bring them back out in the election campaign proper. Additionally the whispered rumours amongst the political cognoscenti regarding further skeletons in a number of DUP closets have remained exactly that: rumours only.

The DUP have always been characterised by a remarkable level of internal discipline and their recent problems and apparent internal dissent over the devolution of policing and justice seem to have been put behind them. In addition the prospect of an election always tends to unite parties and as such the DUP as in about as good a shape as they can be considering the turbulent 12 months which they have experienced. Of course that is not actually anything like as strong a position as they were in March 2009 let alone March 2007, following the last assembly elections. However, although the DUP have had to lower their sights and indeed have suffered very badly in recent times there is a significant possibility that they could emerge from this election, if not strengthened then at least little damaged: a feat scarcely believable at the height of Irisgate.
The DUP must think carefully about expectation planning and management in this election in order for limited losses to look like triumph. The first thing they cannot expect is anything other than a loss in their share of the vote. With the TUV in play and even a modest revival of UUP fortunes, the DUP must resign itself to loosing many, many thousands of votes as compared to all previous elections apart from the last European one. Hence, it is most unlikely that the DUP website will any time soon return to proudly displaying their percentage of the vote in recent elections.

Although a significant drop in the percentage vote is to be expected and must be factored into any spin surrounding the election, the DUP can be considerably more optimistic regarding hold seats. The likely losses have been massively reduced from the seeming disaster to now maybe only three or four as a worst case scenario.

The DUP have been helped significantly by some of the CU’s choices: As I have mentioned previously whatever Harry Hamilton’s personal qualities it does not look like a particularly good choice to take on David Simpson, especially if there is no TUV candidate. Strangford, North and South Antrim remain vulnerable but on a good day it is possible that the DUP could hold all of them or only lose one or two.

If the DUP can avoid any losses to the TUV, they can present them as serial failures; unable to win an election and although that may be unfair, it will be difficult for the TUV without any representatives beyond local councils. Then the DUP may hope that the momentum which the TUV gained from the European election will dissipate and the party will slowly or rapidly disappear, admittedly leaving many voters still very angry with the DUP for their policy volte face but with no realistic home for their votes other than the DUP.

Turning to their tactics towards the CUs: If the DUP can engineer losing only two seats to them; they can present the much vaunted New Force as having very little relevance. Indeed South Antrim could be explained away as a candidate who has never really gelled with the constituency and who has lost the seat previously. Strangford is even easier to dismiss by reference to the Irisgate factor and the suggestion that the DUP had a close to impossible task there for that reason alone. Additionally if Mike Nesbitt does win (and that prospect is far from certain) he can be presented as not really a typical CU candidate and a man who is semi detached from the rest of the party in much the same way as Sylvia Hermon came to be viewed. If the elections could end with only two CU MPs, the DUP can probably feel that it has been a good election. If, however, they can manage to reduce the losses to one seat and especially if the CUs fail to hold North Down, then the DUP can present the CUs, after all the bluster, spin and hubris, as actually losing relevance compared to the last general election for the UUP. Then the European election would truly have been a Dead Cat bounce.

If the CUs end up with nothing (not impossible) of course then the DUP could indeed be close to a major realignment of unionism in its favour. That is unlikely but such have been the dire predictions for the DUP at the height of Irisgate, that the loss of three or less seats can be presented as a fairly good election for them.

DUP party strategists of course cannot afford to be so sanguine. If the TUV can win North Antrim, let alone if they win more than that, they will remain on the political scene for the foreseeable future: and they probably will survive even if they loose North Antrim. That will make the Assembly elections and holding enough seats to gain the first ministership a very difficult task for the DUP. Against that, if the TUV and CUs do badly then the shroud waving demand that unionists vote DUP to stop a Sinn Fein first minister might be worth wheeling out again; might have an air of credibility and become an achievable goal. Then if the DUP could be back in the position of being larger than Sinn Fein whilst in power sharing with them, Peter Robinson’s long term goal would have been realised.

The other imponderable issues for the DUP are the extent to which voters feel that they still want to punish them for entering power sharing and whether or not the voters feel that the Hillsborough agreement on P&J devolution was a triumph or disaster. The DUP completely misread the electorate last year at the European election and suffered one of their worst recent political debacles; they now seem to think that the electorate will accept P&J devolution but they have been wrong before. Finally of course there are “Events” and if some of the rumours which swirled around the internet and elsewhere at the height of Irisgate were shown to be true at least one other constituency would almost certainly fall: then the situation might become disastrous. Overall, however, there are some reasons for the DUP to feel more confident than they did only three months ago. Being on the way up after a disaster is a more comfortable place than being on the way down into one. Which they will be after the election is still far from clear.

  • Niccolo

    Turgon,

    Nice piece. I agree with most of it actually.

    However, I’m curious, which DUP seats do you see as vulnerable and why?

    For instance, can Allister really take North Antrim from the Paisleys?

    Even the bookies, not the most sentimental of creatures, had IPJ at 5 to 1 on the last time I looked.

  • Justin Case…

    Did I not recall something coming from the DUP a few months ago that their current MP’s would be choosing between Stormont/Westminster?

    I think the electorate were blatantly lied to.

    Politics really is a rotten business.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    I think Strangford is certainly lost for the DUP. Which is a pity as it lets in a celeb candidate (Nesbitt) who will I think be a legend in his own lunchtime as George Lee was in the South.
    North Down…frankly Parsley doesnt deserve to win. In many ways Im cynical but deep down Im a romantic. I like my politicians to have a different type of “integrity”.
    Upper Bann…Simpson will win. In part because he is TUV-lite.
    North Antrim…Junior Paisley will win much easier than some expect.
    South Belfast…actually provides a chance for DUP to redress Strangford.
    South Antrim….certainly McCrea is a liability but without a chosen UUP candidate, his chances grow daily.

    The big headline on the day after election will be Fermanagh South Tyrone. The elation in the pro-union camp at a likely UUP win (with Foster stepping aside) will in part overshadow the certain Strangford loss and the DUP can claim some “credit” and write Iris off as a personal rebuke.
    Ultimately TUV is handicapped by having only Jim Allister known beyond the narrow confines of fringe unionism. He has peaked.

  • aquifer

    “The DUP are managing to put increasing distance between them and Irisgate, double jobbing, expenses etc.,”

    Where is Iris?

    That Sunday Times piece on cash for ministerial access was very interesting. If anyone knows more about the local parallels please contact the BBC Spotlight team.

  • BryanS

    Is there any chance that there is substance to the DUP rumours? If so is there no evidence which can be used to either substantiate or deny them It is not healthy for such rumours to be protected by injunctions if they can be shown to be untrue.

  • YelloSmurf

    BryanS, I have not heard the rumours, but I have heard evidance from people who were asked to donate to the DUP in exchange for planning permission in Castlereagh.

    Having said that, that is only one story, and it’s not really public domain, it’s probably inadmissible in terms of the election.

  • Niccolo

    FitzjamesHorse,

    I’m struggling to find any of the DUP seats vulnerable, apart from South Antrim and even that depends on who is selected for the UUP/CONs.

    I’m afraid I disagree with your analysis on Strangford. Given that Iris Robinson was a bit of a high-profile ‘celebrity’ in her own right (for whatever reasons) the last thing the people there will warm to is another ‘name’. The DUP have been quite clever here and opted for a low profile (but well known and respected figure in the constituency) candidate in Jim Shannon who has a proven track record over 25 years. In short, don’t be surprised if he comes in under the radar and takes the seat. Mike Nesbitt may indeed be sincere but his whole involvement smacks of a career move to me.

    Shoot me down if you like, but I think the DUP will hold all they have, take South Belfast, and maybe even North Down too.

  • granni trixie

    I think that the discussion above underestimates the impact of baggage assocated with Iris. Hopefully, she will return to full health. But how is her return to NI to be managed? Will she be kept in purdah until after the election, following the sporty model (Tiger Woods et al – period of rehabilitation/carefully placed media stories etc)

    The fly in the ointment is that whilst her husband may have weathered the storm for now there are some questions she and she alone will have to answer. So potentially the DUP should be afraid,very afraid.

    They cannot hide a person away forever.

    Haven’t said all that, I will be very surprised if the UU performance (mess of the Tory/UU link up,to mention but one) will not cost them votes. Who are their core voters now?

  • union mack

    The UUP totally messed up the good position they were in in January. Totally. For that, Reg Empey should be gone, but it is a measure of the UUP’s neptitude and lack of talent that he remains in charge. I think they will win Strangford – Alliance and SDLP types liking the face and seeing an opportunity to get the DUP out, switching to him. Other than that, their only real hope is a pact in FST (combined with a high-profile candidate for the SDLP). South Antrim is a gonner, Adrian Watson is a poor performer and for that reason only, the pompous singer will sneak through. South Belfast will remain in SDLP hands, and North Down will almost certainly fall to the DUP if Hermon stands. Additionally, Jim Allister’s high personal vote in the Euro’s was in no small part down to his record as an MEP, and the DUP candidate was incredibly lightweight. Coming from the area, I figure that many people who are opposed to SF in government realise that this unfortunately is the only show in town, and better to have a strong unionist counterbalance to them. My prediction – DUP 16000, TUV 10000, UUP 6000, SF 7000. I could be wrong, but I have loadsa money on it so hope not 🙂

  • FitzjamesHorse

    union mack, have I read you right @7000 for SF in North Down ????
    granni trixie,
    fully take the point on Iris. While the DUP have done well to sideline her, the moment canvassers start knocking on doors in Newtownards, Kircubbin and Comber, she becomes an issue again.
    And while “niccolo” is right above to say that Jim Shannon has 25 years of service behind him I still see Nesbitt taking that seat. Choosing a candidate who is dull and a good pair of hands is exactly the DUPS best hope but in Strangford they are on the back foot and I think the voters are in a mood to punish them. Perhaps the entire “DUP voters” frustration can be taken out in Strangford…with the DUP getting the benefit of the doubt in the rest of their constituencies with the prospect of North Down.
    Taking a purely neutral stance this is very unfair on Jim Shannon. Nesbitt is I believe a George Lee waiting to happen. It will end in tears before the 2015 Election.
    For UUP to capture North Down, they need to persuade a lot of Sylvia supporters and Alliance voters to vote UUP and Parsleys “treachery” as committed AP voters would rightly see it….wont help him.

  • Drumlins Rock

    There is still one unknown which could be played really for the first time in NI, thats the real chance of our MPs being part of the Government, to be blunt apart from the “status” and a handful of commons votes what was the difference in having a SF or a DUP MP in the last parliment?
    If the UCU play it right and make people actually think that they are voting for a government and not just an ego it could make a difference, on the other hand maybe it wont, I think no-one really knows yet ie. will the sight of the possible priminister actually tramping the streets of Ards make any difference? we dont know, it shall be interesting!
    As for Nesbitt being a “George Lee” I think is unlikely if he gets to enjoy the westminister scene, I get the feeling he will fit in much better as basically a Tory over there than a UUP man skirting round the edges of Stormont.
    Who knows maybe in the same way many UUP voter sent Paisley to Europe over the years, DUP voters will be happy to vote UCU for Westminister and revert to DUP for Stormont.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Certainly a reasonable view in respect of Nesbitt at Westminster but the man strikes me as having an ego bigger than political skill or work ethic.
    Charisma in search of a purpose.
    No real substance.

  • Paul

    a good piece turgon are you finally waking up and realizing that the TUV have nothing to offer any of us.?

  • union mack

    FitzjamesHorse

    Those are my guestimates for North Antrim. I should have stated that more clearly…

  • Niccolo

    Well folks, some interesting takes on this but I, for one, have seen nothing yet to move me from my original prediction: DUP hold all 9, take South Belfast (come what may), and possibly ‘steal’ North Down.

    FitzjamesHorse can you give us a little more on why you think Mike Nesbitt will win in Strangford?

    I think people may want to “punish” Mrs Robinson, but I still can’t see that manifesting itself in Jim Shannon’s vote (or lack of).

    For me, the safe pair of hands with the local track record will take the seat.

  • Niccolo

    Regarding the TUV, since someone has invoked the name, can anyone give me a straight answer to the following simple question?:

    Where are they going?

  • Greenflag

    Niccolo ,

    Regarding the TUV, can anyone give me a straight answer to the following simple question?:

    Where are they going?

    That’s easy enough –

    Nowhere -into the dustbin of history and may be followed not too long after by the UUP who have become ever more lemming like since they joined forces once again with the Tories that most detestable party as regards this island .

  • Niccolo

    Greenflag,

    I would be interested in the answer to this question even more:

    Where do they think they are going?

  • Paul

    #

    Regarding the TUV, since someone has invoked the name, can anyone give me a straight answer to the following simple question?:

    Where are they going?
    Posted by Niccolo on Mar 22, 2010 @ 02:38 PM

    Answer nowhere they the TUV have nothing to say nothing to offer no alternative only promoting sinn feins agenda and helping elected nationalists. They TUV are putting up a person named walter millar in mid ulster.I thought it was walter mittey or that childrens programme character windy miller.What a sad bunch of losers allister and his motley crew of TUV dinasaurs are pathetic.

  • ardmaj55

    Aquifier [4] The suggestion by Turgon that the DUP has put distance between them and Irisgate is premature because unless they have managed to get the inquiry conclusions at Castlereagh council put off until after the election this can conme back to bite them [with any luck]. Also, Peter is still not cleared in the inquiries dealing with his dodgy dealings with developers.

  • ardmaj55

    Greenflag [17] Jim Allister will be quetly winding up his excuse for a party after the election on probably May the sixth, and hoping the media will have more on the Catholic abuse scandal to keep them off his trail. The lapdog media here have let the DUP completely off the hook over their hypocrisy exposed at Hillsborough talks, where they claimed they needed Sunday off as they were devout sabbatarians and then they were caught holding a meeting in a hotel in England on the day. Typical.

  • Niccolo

    Just curious, but is there anyone within the TUV who has actually held a significant elected office before (apart from Mr Allister as a former MEP that is)?

  • Paul

    #

    Just curious, but is there anyone within the TUV who has actually held a significant elected office before (apart from Mr Allister as a former MEP that is)?
    Posted by Niccolo on Mar 22, 2010 @ 03:06 PM

    The TUV have no elected representatives all are former DUP councilors.Allister was elected a DUP MEP but lost his seat to dianne dodds.The TUV recently lost a councilor in a council by election.They the TUV have contested three elections losing all three in due course it will be four elections contested and four defeats.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    ardmaj55,
    Correct.
    The word has gone out thru NIO Press briefings that DUP MUST be saved.
    The Media (fearless as ever) complies.

  • UlsterScotty

    The apathy factor for both the DUP and Sinn Fein will present a much greater challenge than any of the other parties. I do believe that there will be enough of an upset in the numbers to worry them about the next elections, whether these turn out to be the existing councils (due next year, I think, absent an agreed RPA settlement) or the Assembly in 2012. People in Northern Ireland have long memories. Remember 1690!

  • Harry J

    I think Strangford is certainly lost for the DUP….

    Jim Shannon is HUGELY respected in strangford and nesbitt wants to give terrorists and their families £12500 … no way are the DUP going to lose this

  • PaddyReilly

    South Belfast is one of two constituencies in the province where the bourgeois respectable parties outnumber the SF/DUP extremes. Anyone who thinks that the DUP is going to unseat McDonnell there is suffering from an excess of partisan zeal, I fear.

    I can’t think what the DUP have been doing since the Euros to make them increase their vote and representation: they will be very lucky to maintain it at that level. Any percentage increase may be due to the TUV not standing in every constituency.

    The FPTP system is dangerously unrepresentative where multiple parties arise. In the old days parties didn’t bother to contest the election in those constituencies where they had no chance. It saved a lot of money. Unfortunately, standing as a candidate is an important stepping stone in your career, and no-one wishes to miss the chance. You just cannot get people to stand down in the interests of a more representative government.

    Of course Jim Allister, even if he won nought seats in the Westminster Parliament, would have no reason to throw in the towel, since the Stormont system virtually guarantees his party one seat in every constituency except W Belfast and Foyle. (Where there are 4 Nationalist seats the outcome is also uncertain). That’s PR for you.

    In Stormont terms we are moving towards a state where some constituencies will return 6 MLAs from 6 different parties. I have high hopes of South Antrim and East Belfast doing so, at least.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    HarryJ,
    I know that Jim Shannon is respected there.
    I am merely saying that the DUP needs to be punished by the Strangford voters because of Iris.
    Decent Jim Shannon will take the hit…hes expendable.
    No way would upwardly mobile newest MLA Jonathan Bell have blotted his CV by losing this seat.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    paddyreilly you overestimate the TUV. its loyalist fringe, an irritant as was bob mccartneys creations. jim allister is the new mccartney…..with the same charmless streak.

    yes youre right on the importance of standing. but its not just about “careers”, its also about maintaining a presence in a constituency.
    too many parties…..eg SDLP in FST….and AP in West Belfast have paid a high price for not showing the flag.

    South Belfast……a lot of factors at play here but I think SDLP will lose it.

  • borden

    I think that a split unionist vote in SB means that McDonnell can win by a few hundred votes

  • YelloSmurf

    Paddy, North Belfast returned six MLAs from six parties in 1998.

  • granni trixie

    Borden: Anna Lo is very popular across all boundaries, I would not write her off as influencing what happens.

  • PaddyReilly

    paddyreilly you overestimate the TUV

    Do I? 66,000 votes against 88,000 for the DUP and 82,000 for UCUNF (at the Euros) is doing very well imho.

    Guarantees them nearly half the DUP MLAs at Stormont, I would say.

    The DUP built its following on being the most right wing, uncompromising Unionist party available. If they then compromise, how many of their followers will go with them?

    As Goldsmith said, when a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy.

    I think that a split unionist vote in SB means that McDonnell can win by a few hundred votes

    Let me remind you that at the last SB election, the SDLP won 2 seats, and Alliance, SF, DUP, UCUNF one apiece. In a FPTP General Election that translates into a SDLP win, and not by a few hundred votes either. In 2007 there was an initial small advantage to the Unionist camp which they could have translated into a better showing if they had played their cards better, but that was probably the last time when that will happen.

  • Turgon

    PaddyReilly,
    Amazingly we agree.

    Indeed the basic thesis of my blog was and remains that the DUP are in a stronger position because the CUs are in the process of falling apart. If this goes on one might see the CU vote collapse and significant sections of it defecting to the TUV. That may sound foolish but could one really predict the utter chaos the CUs seem in the process of visiting upon themselves.

  • granni trixie

    PaddyR: a flaw in your argument is in assuming that voters remain the same. Think about it. Why did the deal in the 1970s fail but the almost same deal pass muster in the 1990s – because people changed,albit very slowly. Some argue “the people” were ahead of the politicans.

    So whilst I am not expecting DUP voters to have melted away I am expecting that many of them will have been conditioned (not least by all sorts of scandals) to moderate their views and voting patterns.

  • PaddyReilly

    Amazingly we agree

    Brilliant! Sometimes one is more accurate commenting on the internal squabbles of the other side, that way wishful thinking can be eliminated from one’s thinking. However, in view of the following, I don’t believe this to be the case.

    If this goes on one might see the CU vote collapse and significant sections of it defecting to the TUV.

    I can see no reason why the CU vote should collapse, or why it should increase. If it does, I can’t see any of it going to the TUV. The TUV collects votes from disgruntled DUP voters. Any right-wing Unionists who could not abide the UUP’s compromises have already defected to the DUP.

    a flaw in your argument is in assuming that voters remain the same.

    I do not assume this. My oft-repeated thesis (ad nauseam, to those who do not enjoy the prospect) who is that the electorate gets more Nationalist with time, by a rate of approximately 5% per decade. Consequently, the electorate who vote in 2010 are liable to be a bit less orangey than they were in 2007 or 2005. Not overwhelmingly so, but enough to make small changes and not to lose any ground, as far as Nationalists are concerned.

  • granni trixie

    PaddyR: funny enough I personally am evidence re your thesis regarding an increase of Nationalists.

    By this I mean that I had to work at it to work out why I had an animosity towards “the South”. Now I can see that it is that the IRA brought their flag into disrepute and that the IRA were able to train with impunity acroos the border.

    But those days are over. We are all on one island so I can thole a united Ireland (a big thing for me,not quite what Nationalist implies, I know, but in that direction).

  • borden

    the boundary commission didn’t help McDonnell but I do realise that Anna Lo and Aex Maskey can thwart the doctor. Still think he’ll nick it like Durkan and Ritchie

  • PaddyReilly

    I can thole a united Ireland

    As an irrelevant aside, I must mention that I used to play Scrabble with an English friend. When I put my last letter, a T, in front of the word /hole/ and won the game, she went up the wall. There’s no such word she told me. I pointed out that it was a verb and a noun, as in /thole-pin/. After that I gave up playing Scrabble, and using the t-word. We all have to make compromises.

  • dodrade

    I don’t think the DUP really know themselves how well or badly the election will go, but morale is certainly a lot better than in January. I think too they’re increasingly confident of seeing off Allister in North Antrim. Policing and Justice has proved to be the dog that didn’t bark. They’ve also been lucky to have enemies as inept as the UUP. The DUP were on the ropes and a semi-competent opposition could have dealt a mortal blow, but like the Palestinians, the UUP never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

  • ardmaj55

    Borden [13] I see the DUP are looking forward to a hung parliament, but could be the victims of the adage,’be careful of what you wish for….’ They think Unionists can then dictate to whichever party has most votes in a tight margin for either labour or tory. This plan could come a cropper if no Unionist agreed candidate is found in the two vexed seats [F/SthT and SB]. In that case there could be level pegging in the 18 seats at 9-9. Then SF could decide to take their seats at westminster to foil any chance of London parties doing a deal with the unionists. Of course SF would need the seats to be equally shared btween the two sides to have the figleaf to cover their u turn on taking the oath.