Election Spectrum 2010: A run down of the main issues for each of the parties…

With so many powers devolved to Northern Ireland we will only become a factor at Westminster in the event of a hung parliament. And even then Northern Ireland political parties shouldn’t get too carried away with their importance. In such circumstances the Lib/Dems are morel likely to have the real clout way ahead of any local party here. Peter Robinson summed up the positions of local parties apart from his own when it comes to Westminster.

• The Ulster Unionists are in bed with the Tories (or some of them).

• The SDLP are fellow travellers of Labour.

• Sinn Fein abstains.

• Should there be a miracle (ie Robinson losing his own seat to Naomi Long), the Alliance Party will line up with the Lib/Dems.

•- Jim Allister would probably align with the Conservatives.

The DUP are wisely hanging loose. Peter Robinson, if elected, will have leverage.

Economist John Simpson and former Alliance man Seamus Close have made the most intelligent observations to date about this election, so far as Northern Ireland is concerned. I draw attention to some of their points below.

With most of the powers now devolved the big issue for local MPs will be influencing, if they can, what happens when it comes to voting on financial matters, taxation etc at Westminster.

For the first time for decades the Ulster Unionist Party is facing into an election without a single MP. That party has got into bed with the Conservatives and that marriage has been ‘pre nupped’ for the greater part by Jonathan Caine but caught between a rock and a hard place the wheel has come off Cameron’s wagon in Fermanagh/ South Tyrone.

The DUP stared the Ulster Unionists down and now there is no Conservative candidate with a unity candidate having emerged under the banner of the DUP and the UUP and not sponsored by the conservative party. The deal promoted by the Conservatives was a candidate in all eighteen constituencies. One wonders to what this high-minded and lofty Conservative aspiration amounts now?

A party source said in recent weeks:

“The Conservative party’s fear is that we will be dragged down into the gutter of tribalism instead of Northern Ireland politics being elevated onto the national stage.”

Having seen Adrian Watson off the pitch in South Antrim on a matter of social concern Reg Empey surprised many and agreed to be the candidate himself. Should the UUP leader fail to get elected will the band play “Good Night Irene” for him? And what if the Ulster Unionist alliance ends up where it started with no MPs?

But in general terms the biggest enemy of this election may be apathy. It is taking place in Northern Ireland against a very fractured background.

The SDLP is not yet comfortable in its skin. It has a new unproven leader in Margaret Ritchie. She hasn’t had sufficient time to flex her muscles and to make her mark as a leader.

Sinn Fein has already got its ballot paper armies on the streets. This is an election machine worth seeing. Any idea that Gerry Adams is going to suffer because he won’t say he was in the IRA is not sustainable.
Adams skillfully put his personal dilemma arising from his brother Liam’s child abuse allegation to bed on the Nolan Show when he was afforded maximum time to give a full exposition of the role he played in that case.

Even so, there are some imponderables in the Sinn Fein camp. What is going to happen in Fermanagh South Tyrone now that there is a Unionist unity candidate? (I will revisit the finer details down there at another time when the dust settles on the final list of runners across Northern Ireland.)

Getting a handle on the DUP is more complex. This is Peter Robinson’s first Westminster election as party leader. The European Election was hardly an auspicious start under Mr Robinson’s tutelage and he has admitted as much.

The backdrop against which the DUP is fighting this election is none too easy. The expenses scandal lingers like a bad smell. There is also Mr Robinson’s domestic crisis and the attending difficulties visited upon him.

He remains in the eye of the storm over the £5 land strip. Why did he bother at all to get involved with Fred Fraser over that piece of land if he had an independent free standing access to his garden?

If Peter Robinson has a perfectly logical and cogent argument for doing what he did then people should hear it. He will be asked more questions on this matter. He chose to go public on the BBC and missed his opportunity serving only to compound his difficulty.

Lashing out and calling almost everyone but the Pope a liar was far from prudent.

In the circles in which I move and this includes the world of the DUP, the majority of people wished Mr Robinson had not been so ‘incendiary’ in his defence. Will that constituency simply say “The media are agin us. Here’s to you Peter – You are our man?” It may well be the case.

But Peter Robinson has to win his own seat. He has to have a win in Strangford and above all Ian Paisley Junior, not taking North Antrim, would unlock the door to hell as far as the DUP leader would be concerned. This election will be a big test of Mr Robinson’s durability and leadership.

Jim Allister notched up 66.000 votes in the European Election. A recapturing of that vote across Northern Ireland could have far reaching implications. Mr Robinson has been cumulatively hurt due to many events since becoming leader.

Those fourteen dissenting voices on Policing and Justice have not gone away. They symbolise the end of an era: the Paisley-led and socially homogeneous DUP.

This is going to be one hell of an election with most of the attention, not to mention pressure falling squarely upon Peter Robinson.

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  • slug

    The unionist electorate are prepared to switch substantially – this is what the history of the last 40 years tells us. Expect upsets. Since the DUP are the lead party, that means upsets for them and good news for TUV and UCU.

  • Comrade Stalin

    For the first time for decades the Ulster Unionist Party is facing into an election without a single MP

    Eamonn, I don’t think there has been a period when the UUP have been without an MP (other than for contrived reasons eg the Anglo Irish Agreement) since the party was founded in 1905.

    slug:

    Since the DUP are the lead party, that means upsets for them and good news for TUV and UCU.

    Slug, this post shows how you really don’t get it. The DUP offered unionists a compelling and competent alternative. If the UUP were offering that now then of course people would switch back. But they’re not. The UUP are offering a incoherent, half-in, half-out mess. I can’t tell whether they’re pro-agreement or not. I can’t tell whether they’re homophobes or not; where they stand on the matter of the Orange Order; where they sit with respect to the inevitable Tory block grant cuts to the Northern Ireland budget which they will be voting in. In addition the UCUNF simply do not have the presence on the ground. They don’t have the record of constituency work. They don’t have any charisma.

    Saying to the electorate “ah-ha, because of the DUP’s corruption and expenses controversy you have no choice but to fall into our hands” while rubbing your hands with ill-conceived glee doesn’t strike me as the right way to persuade the electorate to feel good about voting you in.

  • slug

    CS – I am sure there is a lot in what you say, the UCUs do have some issues there. (Though I am pretty sure they are not homophobic). However I do think that the record over the recent past does show that the electorate switch parties on the unionist side. ANd this for example will certainly allow the TUV to pick up votes, and I would expect (though clearly you disagree) the UCU’s to pick up too.

    Since you (CS) use the term “you” a lot there, I just want to clarify that I am not a member or donor to any of the political parties in Northern Ireland, nor am I a consistent voter for any given party.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Comrade Stalin has made some excellent points here.
    The DUP was in (almost) meltdown in early January and Reg Empey has managed to screw everything up, letting them massively off the hook.
    Most DUP people like Campbell, Simpson, Wilson etc kept a low enough profile to probably save their seats.
    And I expect Sylvia to keep her seat. Rightly or wrongly seen as a martyr.
    South Belfast will have some twists and turns.

  • articles

    “We will only become a factor at Westminster in the event of a hung parliament.”

    To Eamonn Mallie’s shame the last fifteen years prove otherwise.

  • Comrade Stalin

    slug, you’re sort of repeating the UCUNF lines so I might have made a leap.

    However I do think that the record over the recent past does show that the electorate switch parties on the unionist side.

    What record are you looking at ? The record I’m looking at going back to 1905 is unbroken power held by the UUP (in one form or another) up until the 1970s. Various micro-parties break off, hang around for a few years, and then largely return to the fold. There is no historic precedent for the rupture within unionism in the late 90s/early 2000s within which the DUP begin making serious gains and eventually completely took over. So I don’t see what this idea that the mantle of unionism changes hands over time is based on.

    And it’s very patronizing to say to the electorate that, like idiots, they will find themselves uncontrollably voting UUP because it is written into their destiny that they will feel compelled to do so due to revulsion from the DUP’s expenses and other scandals. It’s total and utter folly to base your electoral strategy on that.

    A lot of people say that the DUP won over because people weren’t happy with SF in government. But you’ll note the endorsement of the DUP’s proposals to enter powersharing government with Sinn Fein in the 2007 assembly elections. This proves that it wasn’t powersharing itself which broke David Trimble. The UUP bumbled around and were incompetent and flightly; the DUP message was simple, brash and consistent. Their principal weakness, though, was the pathetically useless nature of their local constituency organizations. The key to the DUP’s success is sorting out what outwardly appear to be trivial matters for individual constituents – getting roads fixed, sorting out potholes, getting money for local schools, stuff like that. The UUP think they can win this by putting up celebrities and shoving David Cameron in everyone’s face. They’re wrong.

  • slug

    “So I don’t see what this idea that the mantle of unionism changes hands over time is based on.”

    It is actually based on something I read Nick Whyte saying, probably on his website but perhaps on somewhere like Slugger, back about 8 years ago. There is a substantial portion of the unionist electorate he said that switched votes. He noted that in 1992 there was quite a significant swing to the Conservatives, then in 1997 back to UUP, then in 1998 to UKUP, then in 2003 to the DUP (I think that is where Nick left it). But and then in 2009 we saw again a significant swing to TUV. So that is the sort of thing I had in mind, all of which suggests to me there is a substantial chunk there that is up for grabs and which makes this a very unpredictable election (in my opinion).

  • Comrade Stalin

    I certainly wouldn’t pretend to be able to counter Nick Whyte, but I rather doubt he wrote anything that supports what you said about unionist voters “switching substantially”. The Conservative “swing” never netted them any more than a couple of council seats and one near-miss at a Westminster seat in North Down for Laurence Kennedy, AFAIK. There was no change in the number of seats held by the UUP between 1992 and 1997 except for one in West Tyrone following a boundary change.

    You can’t really use the Euro election as a barometer for this. The DUP ran a bad candidate and a bad campaign, and the UUP vote fell compared to the previous similar poll.

    Sadly, the election in NI is far more predictable than anywhere else in the UK.

  • John East Belfast

    Slug, Comrade

    I think you are both right.

    I think unionists are long term unionists but with changing circumstances they will change allegiance within the unionist family.

    The period 1921 to 1971 doesnt really count as the circumstances didnt really change.

    However after that the rise of Paisley, the IRA, the Anglo Irish Agreement, followed by the ceasefires and the Belfast Agreement and then the DUPs Damascus Road conversion created didfferent environments and allegiances inevitably changed.

    Now we have a whole new set of circumstances – UCUNF, TUV and the travails of the DUP along with Paisley Snr leaving the stage and the Robinsons on the racks.

    Throw into that Protestant individuality and thranness.

    Indeed it would be miraculous if during all those recent circumstances unionists dodnt switch.

  • slug

    CS and JEB

    I do agree CS the points you are making about some of the UUP’s weaknesses compared to the DUP.

    I was just looking at 1992 when Conservatives got 6% in NI despite not standing in at least half the constituencies.

    What one means by “substantial” is a matter of ambiguity, and I don’t remember if Nick Whyte used that term, but he did find it worth remarking on the willingness of a significant section of the unionist electorate to switch party, and he was mainly referring to the 1990s (between Tory, UKUP and UUP) not the 2000s. The 2000s have, I would argue, been consistent with the observation!

  • emanonon

    CS

    There will be substantial swings in the unionist vote, for example in North Antrim look for about 20/23% for the 3 main unionist parties.

    The DUP vote will fall substantially with the main beneficaries being TUV. I expect the parties will finish at about 30,000 in total spread fairly equally amongst the 3 parties.

  • PACE Parent

    Comrade Stalin,
    Slug’s statement “I just want to clarify that I am not a member or donor to any of the political parties in Northern Ireland, nor am I a consistent voter for any given party.” applies to me and many in my unionist circle. (We discuss these issues regularly)
    Today being Grand National Day and all that would you care to place a bet on which party will get my floating vote?

  • LabourNIman

    Eamoon – If the TUV and UKIP get seats they will likely sit together. I can’t see UKIP and the Tories getting on.

  • articles

    It’s as good as time as any to update the crossroads metaphor. Who now stands at the crossroads?

    Well not the UUP. They’re going round in circles having tied themselves to the Tories, the same Tories who, if elected, will slash and burn after the election. Odd given that NI plc is the biggest government job creation scheme in W. Europe. And in return a seat at the cabinet table for Sir Reg eMPey (in waiting). What’s more, they’ve being going round in circles since Sir Reg eMPey (in waiting) took over.
    Verdict: Ulster Unionists on the roundabout with the wheels coming off.

    Well not the DUP. Peter ”Much ado about nothing” Robinson has made his mind up. “They’re all liars”. Meanwhile an election has been called and there’s another temporary hold up on the very long and extremely winding road to Damascus. But wait what’s that coming over the hill? Is it the TUV? Will Ian Paisley and Jim Shannon, held up at the barriers, get across the line first?
    Verdict: DUP at the level crossing looking over their shoulders.

    Well not SF. Crossroads have connotations of crises, of doubt and uncertainty, of decisions right or wrong to be made. Best be avoided then just like Westminster. SF are above all that. At the last count there is a SF policy on everything, no doubt there. To be fair however SF categorically refute that political leadership and doctrinal authority have been fused in an elite.
    Verdict: SF on the flyover [ no the bridge, not the helicopter].

    And what of the SDLP? As is customary in the recent past bringing up the rear. A big dilemma for Margaret Ritchie in F&ST;. Should she or shouldn’t she pull Fearghal McKinney. Let’s hope for the future of SDLP, the future of democracy, and the future of N. Ireland the decision is made on principle.
    Verdict: SDLP genuinely at the crossroads.

  • articles

    A new campaign week about to dawn and still SDLP are at the crossroads.

    If it’s a principled decision it’s an easy choice.