Pitching for Unionist or Nationalist unity in a bid to maximise representation for one tradition or the other is a well established tactic at election time in Northern Ireland. All unionist parties strictly advise ‘their’ voters to transfer to fellow unionists, regardless of sharp political differences on socio-economic, moral or other issues, whilst Sinn Fein will speak of maximising nationalist representation (though transfer patterns between nationalist parties have never been as uniform as within unionism.)
Part of the Alliance Party’s electoral pitch is that they offer something different- hence the Other designation within the Assembly.
Which makes the appearance of this leaflet all the more interesting.
East Antrim is an overwhelmingly unionist constituency. In 1998, the SDLP candidate, Danny O’Connor, secured a surprise election to the Assembly. The seat was lost in 2003 after years of loyalist intimidation and violence against the small catholic community in Larne had further reduced the nationalist population in the constituency (the seat was already a marginal.) No nationalist candidate secured election in 2007.
The boundary changes that came into effect prior to the 2011 election brought into the constituency an area of the Glens of Antrim that contained a significant number of nationalist voters, and it was his ability to motivate this core constituency to turn out which ensured that a nationalist representative, in the person of Sinn Fein’s Oliver McMullan, secured election with the sixth and last seat in 2011.
Fast forward to 2016, and the aforementioned leaflet gives an insight into the electoral strategy that has been concocted by Alliance in the constituency.
The Alliance Party leaflet claims ‘only’ their candidate can challenge Sinn Fein for the final seat and that they were just 69 votes short of doing this and claiming a second seat in 2011. That creates a false impression that the final candidate eliminated in 2011 was an Alliance representative. In reality, the UUP’s Rodney McCune was the last candidate eliminated in 2011, almost 500 votes behind the successful Sinn Fein candidate. Had McCune been eliminated prior to the second Alliance candidate, then it is possible that his transfers may have propelled the Alliance candidate ahead of Sinn Fein’s McMullan.
The implicit argument being made by the Alliance Party is that, because their voters did not transform uniformly to Mr McCune, it meant that Sinn Fein were able to secure a nationalist seat in the overwhelmingly unionist constituency of East Antrim.
Therefore, in order to prevent that from happening, voters in the staunchly unionist constituency should opt for Alliance.
I highlighted this leaflet and the ‘Us vs Themmuns’ mentality which motivated it yesterday on Twitter, provoking a flurry of replies from a range of Alliance Party representatives, including Naomi Long. An attempt was even made to equate this leaflet with the message on an Alliance leaflet in East Belfast which referenced the absence of other Unionist parties from the 2015 Westminster election contest in that constituency to proclaim that only Alliance could challenge the DUP there. Needless to say, the comparison is spurious. East Belfast will elect multiple unionist candidates, and Alliance were not pitching to an overwhelmingly nationalist audience the message that voting them alone would prevent DUP/unionist representation in a constituency.
I can quite understand why Alliance Party representatives would be anxious over this leaflet being highlighted.
Political parties will use a range of tactics and strategies to motivate and incentivise people into turning out and voting on election day. All is fair in love, war and politics.
In West Belfast, the two main unionist parties are currently busy telling the constituency’s unionist electorate that they must seize the opportunity to elect their chosen unionist by turning out on the day and transferring to the other candidate so that at least one unionist will gain election. Similarly, Sinn Fein are busy telling voters intent on giving their first preference to the SDLP or PBP that they should transfer to the five Sinn Fein candidates thereafter to ensure that nationalist representation is maintained at the same level after the election. On ‘both’ sides, that is to be expected due to the pre-eminent position of the constitutional question within our politics. I can recall a television interview with the DUP’s Simon Hamilton after a previous Assembly election count in which he publicly consoled himself and DUP voters after conceding that they’d not take a fourth seat in Strangford with the retort to the effect that at least the final seat had not fallen to a nationalist.
The challenge for Alliance will be in squaring its oft-made claims to be above such tribal pitches with the decision to produce a leaflet targeting the overwhelmingly unionist electors of east Antrim with the stark message that only Alliance can stop the main nationalist party from taking a seat in their constituency.