The saga of whether or not there will be a unionist pact continues with Mike Nesbitt suggesting that he may still be open to an agreement. He stated:
“Without a deal, without an understanding there is a real prospect there could be no unionist representing the capital city of Northern Ireland in Westminster on the 8th May,” he said.
“With a deal, who knows? Maybe three of the four could be unionist but they can’t all be DUP.”
The seats in question are of course North, South and East Belfast and outside Belfast but also relevant Fermanagh / South Tyrone.
As has been noted previously on slugger both sides of the political divide are quick to label any pact or hint thereof, as a sectarian campaign. The reality though is that, rightly or wrongly, most people in Northern Ireland vote with the candidates view on the constitutional position as the most important issue. This can be described as tribal, sectarian or whatever but it is simply a fact.
There are likely to be exceptions and variations on how committed people are to opposing “the other side”. This is often largely dependent on how unacceptable the “other side’s” candidate is but the centrality of the constitutional issue is overwhelming no matter how much the letsgetalongerists or other “progressives” would wish it to be otherwise.
North Belfast is clearly currently held by Nigel Dodds of the DUP with the threat coming from Gerry Kelly. Kelly has launched a pretty clear “them and us” campaign. It is highly unlikely that many (? Any) unionist voters would prefer Gerry Kelly over their less favoured unionist party. The Salmon of Data (can I digress to ask the Salmon if his excellent pen name is taken from Jakers?) has an excellent set of analyses of the population and voting statistics here.
It seems clear that despite a possible small overall nationalist / republican majority a single unionist candidate in the shape of Nigel Dodds would have a very high chance of holding North Belfast whereas a split unionist vote would run a significant danger of handing the seat to one of unionism’s chief bogeymen in the form of Gerry Kelly. For Kelly, especially after his latest leaflet, to try to tar a unionist candidate with the sectarian brush would be laughable even to many nationalists.
South Belfast is somewhat more complex. Again the Salmon’s data analysis is extremely instructive. As he notes the demographics in terms of religious opinion are similar. However, the constituency and the candidates are markedly different. South Belfast was one place where a unionist majority (now gone) was divided resulting in an SDLP win. Dr. McDonnell has held the seat since that split vote in 2005. In 2010 Sinn Fein stood aside and the UUP in the grip of the UCUNF folly / farce refused an electoral pact. This resulted in an easy win for McDonnell.
Now with a shift in the demographics to more Catholics than Protestants (though in South Belfast of all places the lazy conflation of religious belief with voting patterns is at its weakest) the ask is harder for any unionist. More importantly normally would be that with two electoral succeses under his belt McDonnell should be pretty safe. However, McDonnell’s public profile has not been especially high and when he does appear on the public stage he has a tendency to be tetchy and somewhat ill tempered. Furthermore as the Salmon notes Sinn Fein are running a good candidate for the area in Ó Muilleoir (the Salmon also notes that this might be part of a cunning plan to decapitate the SDLP).
The DUP are proposing a good though somewhat parachuted in candidate in Jonathan Bell from Strangford whilst the UUP are set to choose between Jeff Dudgeon or Rodney McCune. With good candidates from all four of the main parties (actually five dependent on Alliance’s choice) the race would be very open. With an agreed unionist candidate on the other hand it would look a tough but highly gettable ask for unionism.
East Belfast is of course an entirely different proposition. Here the unionist vote was utterly solid until the almost perfect storm of accusations against Peter Robinson (subsequently shown to be unfounded) along with an excellent Alliance candidate in Naomi Long and Dawn Purvis and parts of broader loyalism supporting Long. To cap it all the UCUNF selected a surreally dreadful candidate in the shape of the truly woeful Trevor Ringland whose post defeat political self immolation provided several years of levity until finally burning out last year.
Long has maybe not been quite as ubiquitious in the constituency as she had been as an MLA and there had been rumours of internal divisions within East Belfast Alliance largely silenced by the campaign against them after the Belfast City Council flag vote – though that vote will not have endeared her to loyalists. Long may also have annoyed some of the politically liberal religious set with her personal support for homosexual marriage. Overall though she has done a decent job and has incumbency on her side.
She has recently been helped up to a point by the UUP selecting a non comedy candidate this time out. Chris McGimpsey as a pretty moderate unionist with strong left wing credentials will no doubt take significant support from the DUP but also from the working class unionist vote which went to Long last time. The Lower Newtownards Road might well go for McGimpsey whereas it is unlikely that Trevor Ringland was aware it was on the same planet as him (then again it was unclear which planet Ringland was on throughout that election – still is). That is, however, the problem for the UUP. Chris McGimpsey would have been an excellent candidate in 2005: he might well have done a Long and taken South Belfast for them. Of course that would have been impossible: McGimpsey would never have taken a Tory whip in the House of Commons and as such the UCUNF would never have selected him. That simple set of facts crystalises the folly that was UCUNF and although the disaster is now gone (to pharaphrase Galadriel) History must not become legend and legend become myth.
The problem for unionism is that McGimpsey standing must significantly increase the chances of Long holding her seat and if she can hold it a second time she is likely to have it indefinitely.
Fermanagh South Tyrone presents as straightforward an issue as North Belfast albeit with a lower chance of unionist success. It was lost to unionism on a split vote and with pretty clear electoral malpractice in Garrison in 2001. In 2005 a split vote resulted in an easy win for Gildernew. In 2010 there was a unity candidate in Rodney Connor who came within 5 votes of taking Gildernew’s seat. Whilst the sectarian balance might have shifted slightly in Gildernew’s favour and she has a longer incumbency she has been less active recently (to be fair her health has at times not been good) and remains another bogeyperson to most unionists. As such a unity candidate has a good chance.
Overall Nesbitt’s call for unity along with choosing good candidates in South and East Belfast is pretty clever politics. At a guess his price for a pact would be a free run in South Belfast and for Tom Elliott is F/ST.
The overall argument in favour of unionist unity is, from a mainstream unionist viewpoint, pretty overwhelming. As a republican commentator mentioned (I think Paddy Reilly) a few months ago unionism has lost a seat at each Westminster election for several in a row. Without a pact the chances of getting those back is relatively low: with a pact up to three could be regained. More than that, however, is what one might call the “Verdun effect”. During the First World War the Germans attacked the iconic French fortress of Verdun. Although some have recently questioned it, the accepted wisdom is that the Germans did not intend to take the fortress but rather to undermine the French Army which they knew would fight tooth and nail for Verdun, hence, losing excessive numbers of troops and bleeding away morale.
A pact in Fermanagh South Tyrone would force Sinn Fein, like last time, to deploy massive resources to try to hold the seat. That in turn would reduce the resources they can devote to North Belfast. It is one of the aims of political parties to maximise the options available to them whilst narrowing their opponent’s options. As such for unionism as a whole a pact is much the best option. I have suggested previously that Peter Robinson is tactically brilliant but at times strategically flawed. Both tactically and strategically on this occasion a unionist pact is likely to be in his and all unionism’s best interests.