Some thoughts on North Antrim

The TUV’s election campaign is now in full swing with 10 candidates contesting seats. The media have focused on the recent spat in the courts between Ian paisley junior and Jim Allister over the DUP’s election literature. Clearly the most attention vis a vis the TUV is on North Antrim. Most in the media seem to regard it as a close contest and the DUP certainly seem to be taking it very seriously despite claims here on slugger and elsewhere that victory is guaranteed: their actions seem to indicate a less sanguine approach.

To be fair the result is hard to call and political analysts whom I greatly respect point out the 18,000 majority Jim Allister would have to overturn in order to win the seat. However, that figure although making Ian Paisley junior’s victory seem likely is far from a complete picture.

A number of factors will decide the election in North Antrim.
The simple fact is that Ian Paisley senior did garner a large personality vote. He had been the MP for half a lifetime and to be fair had achieved significant progress for the constituency in the early years of his leadership. In later years the closure of some of the area’s employers could hardly be blamed on him. Ian Paisley junior has worked hard in the constituency but is not the same towering figure as his father; and although the father can probably pass on some of his personality vote, he cannot do so with all of it. Although Jim Allister may be no match is charisma for Ian Paisley senior: neither is Ian junior.

The rows over expenses recently raised by the court case where Jim Allister was refused an injunction are interesting and seem to be being used by the DUP as an attack on Allister. However, it is far from clear whether this is a terribly effective tactic as it will also serve to remind people of Ian Paisley junior’s expense claims relating to offices and other large claims. In addition once the battle becomes partially about character Ian junior is vulnerable over his ill chosen comments about “knowing of” Semyour Sweeney.

Central to that 18,000 majority is of course what were all those DUP supporters actually voting for? If they were voting specifically for the DUP then indeed Jim Allister, having left the DUP, stands no significant chance. If huge numbers were votes for the Big man and are willing to now go as he suggests then Jim may as well give up.

However, those votes may in large measure have been for a been for a specific vision of unionism: a unionism willing to say that unionists should not agree to enter a mandatory coalition power sharing with Sinn Fein; a unionism willing to forego power for itself if the price of that power was too high. Many of those North Antrim votes may have been for a unionism which for 40 years was not willing to bow to the demands, bribes and threats of others but held to certain principles.

A central question in the election in North Antrim (and elsewhere) is whether or not the electorate feel that the DUP should have made what it regarded as the necessary pragmatic choices which have brought it to political power or whether it should have remained where it was; or driven a harder and better bargain for unionism. The DUP claim to have obtained the best deal possible: the voters thus far have seemed less than entirely convinced. The disaster for Coca Cola and Pepsi’s response when Coca Cola changed their recipe comes to mind: there is one unionist party which has changed and one which will be chosen? If that DUP vote was for a specific vision of unionism rather than for loyalty to the DUP then that 18,000 vote majority is worthless save as a statistic to record a vast swing to the TUV.

Of course the old DUP vote is not the only relevant issue. At the 2005 election 55% may have voted DUP but some unionists also voted UUP. If those voters stick with the CUs it may change little. However, any gain in their vote is unlikely to affect Jim Allister and Ian Paisley junior’s vote equally. If the CU vote falls, its relative distribution is also likely to be relevant. Former UUP voters might feel that the DUP have moved to where the UUP used to be and support them. Alternatively they might decide to vote TUV either because they agree with Jim Allister or to defeat the DUP.

North Antrim also contains a sizeable minority of nationalist / republican voters and again their votes could be relevant. However, it is unclear whether tactical voting to keep the TUV out will be any greater than a desire to defeat the DUP. In reality I would suggest that nationalist tactical voting will be limited in size and hence, relevance in the outcome.

The reality of course is that many factors will affect the voting in North Antrim: loyalty to their usual party, support for specific principles, acceptance of pragmatic compromises, views on candidates characters. Character and personality will undoubtedly be part of the voting dynamic but principles and policy will also be there. Which of Jim Allister and Ian Paisley junior will be Edmund Hillary and George Mallory remains to be seen.