There have long been discussions and suggestions regarding the possibility of a unionist pact: the suggestion seems to be as old as the splits within unionism. Indeed although some “liberal” or “progressive” unionists deride the idea, the reality is that the suggestion has very significant popularity throughout the unionist electorate. In the past I have suggested that unionist civility rather than unionist unity would be a good idea. Now, however, there seems to be the possibility of the opposite: unionist unity without the civility.
The Belfast Telegraph is reporting Tom Elliott’s attacks last week on the DUP:
“You need to scratch the surface (of the DUP) and see who you are getting. Are you telling me that Willie McCrea is a nice right of centre politician?” he asked.
The UUP leader went on: “Sad as I am, I recently looked through old DUP videos and party political broadcasts to see some of the blood and thunder within them.
“Some of those same people are still in the frontline.
“They act more like an independent Ulster party and use their link with the Union as secondary.”
Mr Elliott said he would contest any moves by the DUP to try and claim the unionist centre ground.
“We are still the centre right,” he said.
“If somebody came to try and take my house from me and push me out I would battle to keep it.
“That means we have to battle to keep the centre ground, and we will do that.” He said the DUP and Sinn Fein “manage tribalism and sectarianism between them, one takes one pot of money, the other takes the other”.
In the same article, however, the Telegraph today reports the suggestion that following the election there could be a unionist pact to prevent a Sinn Fein First Minister.
From Tom Elliott again:
“There is no difficulty, as far as I understand it, if parties form relationships after the election but before they nominate ministers,”
And Chief Whip Fred Cobain:
“We have taken legal advice.
“Our advice is that we could adopt a common manifesto with another unionist party after the election.
“If we were working together under an umbrella it would be very difficult for the courts to intervene.
“You need all the trappings of a party even though you are not a party. You need a single leader and a single nominating officer (who appoints ministers), probably the same person as well as a common manifesto, but it can all be done after the election.”
If this is correct it would seem possible that the unionist parties could fight tooth and nail prior to the election and then form a coalition following it. That is of course far from a radical or odd concept: in many electoral systems (including Westminster following May’s election) parties which fought an aggressive campaign against one another then came together as best of friends in the ensuing coalition. Even in NI terms it is also normal except that the coalition is mandatory. Sinn Fein and the DUP are not exactly friendly towards one another at election time. The only difference is that the animosity (at least in public) is maintained following the election.
What the suggestion also represents is clever internal unionist politics. It may help shoot the DUP’s fox of claiming that unionists must vote for them to ensure there is not a Sinn Fein First Minister. Although some suggested that the new liberal DUP might tone down this sort of rhetoric (at least away from the Dreary Steeples) several leading DUP members have made exactly that suggestion recently. Indeed Jeffrey Donaldson’s response to the idea of a pact (also from the Telegraph) was:
“Obviously the best and most effective way to prevent Sinn Fein from becoming the largest party is to ensure the DUP remains the largest party”
As well as ensuring the First Minister is a unionist the other advantage that a post election unionist pact might bring could be to ensure that the combined unionist party achieves the first two ministerial options. As mentioned here, such as the D’Hondt rules, that if the largest party is more than twice the size of the next largest party, that party (the largest) chooses the first two ministries. This would allow unionists to take both Finance (presumably the DUP) and Education (? UUP). This would fulfill (though not in the way he intended) Basil McCrea’s boast at the time of the UUP leadership election that he would ensure Education was taken off Sinn Fein.
Sinn Fein will no doubt be highly annoyed if this strategy is followed through; will no doubt denounce it as a unionist conspiracy and an attempt to get back to unionist misrule. It is unclear whether they would be willing to collapse devolution over the issue and but would certainly use it as a rallying call to try to maximise their share of the nationalist vote.
There are other problems with this strategy: Firstly the courts might declare it illegal, though apparently the both unionist parties are confident that that would not be the case.
The remaining problem for the UUP is that it looks a little like UUP drift and them facing both ways. A few weeks ago there was talk about the UUP refusing to take their ministries and entering opposition (possibly with the SDLP). For them now to be contemplating a pact seems like confusion. There is a defence against that, however, and although it may offend a few of the most liberal unionists it is unlikely to be relevant to that many. That defence is to point to the individual who would be Sinn Fein First Minister and then point to his past. To put it at its most brutal: Do we want the man who was commander of the IRA in Londonderry as First Minister? Do we want a man who will say nothing about the murder of a 29 year old census worker or all the other deaths as First Minister? Many outside unionism may denounce such suggestions; some liberal unionists will also denounce it. However, uncomfortable with such blatant remarks as some may be it is highly unlikely to stop any significant number of unionists voting to keep McGuinness out of the First Ministership. The loss of liberal votes for the UUP in that scenario is likely to be outweighed by the gain in people who would rather have voted UUP but voted DUP to keep out SF.
The liberal and progressive unionists may wail (especially on the Internet) that this will stop the garden centre Prods and the Catholic Unionists voting UUP. However, the unicorns have never come to the UUP’s defence before and even in their garden centres unicorns (both Prod and Taig) tend to have a problem with the godfathers of terrorism. They may also prefer not to have Education continue to be made a complete shambles.