Robinson’s hope: the circular firing squad of liberal East Belfast

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Splintered’s guides are shaping up to be the blog gem of this campaign, though he’s not got as far as East Belfast yet. The common wisdom is that Robinson is safe. His majority of just 6,ooo majority in 2005 (which is towards the lower end of the scale in Northern Ireland), would be comfortable in normal times. But, for the Robinson family, these are not normal times.

Here’s how it worked out last time amongst the main contenders (the nationalist vote is derisory here):

Peter Robinson (DUP) 15,152 (49.1% +6.6%)
Sir Reg Empey (UUP) 9,275 (30.1% +6.9%)
Naomi Long (Alliance) 3,746 (12.2% -3.6%)

Now, given the instability of the DUP’s political position viz a viz the voters (Dromore and the Euros),  and the various scandals (real or otherwise), the DUP leader could be batting for his political life here. Not least since the TUV will be expected to take votes away from him. How much is unknown, but if they poll anything near that majority figure from 2005, he will be toast.

In fact the TUV here have a coherent strategy which could: 1, see one phase of their double decapitation strategy through; and 2, set them up nicely to take a quota from the DUP/PUP in the next Assembly election.

Robinson’s (who has out on the doors since the campaign began) big advantage is that his opponents are split. The Alliance vote went up considerably in the 2007 Assembly election, when Naomi Long polled 5583 (or 18.8% of the vote). Alliance are confident that with a high profile candidate, Long was Mayor this year (and Slugger’s up and coming politician the year before) that they will take a lot of new votes.

She will almost certainly take votes from the Ulster Unionist candidate (my old mate, Trevor Ringland). And the more she takes the greater the likelihood her party can grab a second quota in East Belfast in the Assembly elections next year. This is a critical part of the party’s plan to grow their Assembly team and substantiate themselves as the definitive party of the centre.

That’s only likely to sharpen their appetite for victory with an east Belfast born and raised (she went Mersey Street Primary, round the back of the Oval) candidate.

Ringland needs, at least, to hold Reg Empey’s vote and, preferably from his point of view, begin slicing back into Naomi’s voter expanding base. He replaces the party leader as lead candidate, who has crossed lough to fish in what is likely to be the much more fertile waters of south Antrim.

Ironically, Ringland’s problem is not Robinson. That job he will have to trust to David Vance and the foot soldiers of the TUV. His real problem is Long, who can point back to the 2007 results to demonstrate she just behind the combined total of Reg Empey and his running mate Michael Copeland.

Long will also argue that the high water point for Alliance here was the near perfect three way split between Bill Craig, Oliver Napier and Peter Robinson when the DUP man took the seat by hundreds of votes, back in 1979. But it is a tall order to grow from 5.5k to where she would be competitive enough to take the seat.

Something that is somewhat reflected in Toal’s (supported by a polling company Lucid Talk) odds at the moment, who make it a rather uneven fight between Robinson (1/4) and Ringland (4/1), with Naomi getting only 14/1.

In short, Ringland needs to convince the voters that Long has no chance of winning the see and therefore putting the squeeze on the Alliance and that a vote for her is effectively a vote for Robinson.

Can he do it? Well, he’s not getting much covering political fire from his partners, the Tories who now have other, more urgent fish of their own to fry. It will be down to the quality and depth of his own on-the-ground campaign. And whether the voters of East Belfast still even remotely care about whether his party lives or dies.

Middle class voter apathy and a tame war between Ulster’s liberals may be the critical dividing line between change and the status quo here.

Still, Robinson is having to field difficult questions on the door steps – not least about the five pound strip which the TUV say is getting some play for them in former hard core DUP areas – that don’t have a one line answer: which is never a good thing for a politician on the hustings.

Whether he keeps the seat or not may depend on an inclusive outcome to that fight between the Alliance and the Ulster Unionists. And of course, events dear boy, events.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty