The last bastion of Ulster Unionism in Belfast is teetering on the brink…

At it’s zenith – possibly due to what some might call the electoral dividends of delivering peace in Northern Ireland – the UUP polled 25,272 across the 4 Belfast Constituencies, polling 9,620 and 9,533 in East and South Belfast respectively.

However, by 2007, the UUP had shed over 10,000 votes in the Belfast Area with sharp declines in East and South Belfast bringing the vote share across Belfast to 15,145. Just last May, the UUP share had fallen to it’s lowest yet, single digits, 9,234.

What’s to blame? Poor leadership? Poor candidates? Old guard gone and new candidates not really known by the electorate?

Eclipsed by the strategic mind of Peter Robinson who single-handedly turned the DUP from a party of protest into a major electoral force across Belfast, let alone Norther Ireland? Or perhaps it’s a mixture of all of the above.

What follows is an examination of where the UUP is on the eve of what’s likely to be a gruelling election campaign.

West Belfast

In a predominantly nationalist constituency, even getting one Unionist elected has been a struggle, the UUP has struggled more than most to make its candidates known in the area and to gain any sort of foothold amongst the unionist voters on the Shankhill road and associated areas and has regularly been eclipsed by the DUP.

North Belfast

The UUP held the line well in North Belfast with Fred Cobain up until his retirement from Stormont in 2011 and subsequent move to the DUP in January 2013.

Following this Mike Nesbitt chose to parachute political unknown Lesley Carroll into the 2016 Assembly Campaign where she achieved a derisory 1,972 votes, barely half of the first preference vote of the third DUP candidate Nelson McCausland on 4,087.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise she stated on the Politics Show last Sunday that “I’ll be sitting this one out”.  It’s clear she no longer has the will to work on the ground and the build the necessary voter-base.

This will no doubt help the DUP in the area as they dig in and work to become the sole voice of Unionism in North Belfast, with a collective team of Nigel Dodds as MP and 3 hard working MLAs who all hope to be reelected under the new 5 seater arrangements.

South Belfast

South Belfast, as we all know, is a unique constituency with a diverse population, which has changed massively over the past ten years. Outgoing in 2007, the UUP had 2 MLA’s in Michael McGimpsey and Esmond Birnie.

But with a slump in their overall vote and a failure to properly balance the candidates, only Michael McGimpsey was returned, losing a seat to Anna Lo of the Alliance Party.

In 2011, the UUP vote stagnated, going nowhere if not backwards and again only Michael McGimpsey was elected. in May 2016, McGimpsey wasn’t on the UUP ticket for the first time since devolution in 1998.

With Rodney McCune selected, the UUP vote collapsed in favour of Christopher Stalford of the DUP, a hard working Councillor who had worked tirelessly on the ground to establish a track record of delivery.

Taking into account the new 5 seater arrangements, it is apparent that in South Belfast there is no possibility of a UUP resurgence, indeed their transfers will be crucial in assisting Christopher Stalford over the line into the fifth seat.

It will be interesting to see how the UUP recommend their voters transfer in this constituency.

East Belfast

The most protestant constituency in Northern Ireland has always tended to return a majority of Unionist Candidates from both the main parties from the return of devolution in 1998.

The DUP and UUP each returned two in 1998 and 2003. However, the decision taken by the UUP in early 2004 to move away from Reg Empey’s constituency office on the Belmont Road to the Albertbridge Road, ceding to Michael Copeland’s big idea to search out the loyalist working-class vote.

This would later prove to be a catastrophically bad decision.

In the election of 2007, in spite of his efforts on constituency matters, Michael Copeland lost his seat to the DUP, with voters in the old Pottinger ward chosing instead to back Dawn Purvis of the PUP. Ark suggests it was due to “the UUP’s disastrous failure to balance their candidates”.

Further to this I would suggest that the UUP’s clear abdication of the leafier end of the constituency namely Belmont, Ballyhackmore, Stormont, Knock, Gilnahirk gave clear openings to both the DUP and Alliance to capitalise.

In 2011, with the retirement of Reg Empey and its Michael Copeland and Philip Robinson holding the UUP line, the UUP’s total vote share in East Belfast halved from 6,516 in 2007 to just 3,137 in 2011 with Michael Copeland just about pipping the then Independent Dawn Purvis to the sixth and final seat.

Michael Copeland left the political stage in late 2015 and Mike Nesbitt caused consternation within the local constituency membership by parachuting in Andy Allen who had been building up a considerable profile as a UUP candidate in North Belfast.

In 2016 Andy Allen managed to achieve 3,047 first preferences which was just shy of the total UUP vote share in 2011 along with his running mate Chris McGimpsey polling 1,095.

To date, the UUP maintain an office on the Albertbridge Road cementing the view that they have all but abandoned any unionists above the Holywood Arches.

Despite the increase in vote share from 2011 from 3,137 to 4,142 in 2016, this is still only 267 votes ahead of the DUP’s third candidate Robin Newton. To this end transfers from Cons (477), UKIP (631), TUV (887), Ind Hutton (1,099) and PUP (1772) suggest that there are a total of 4,866 unionist transfers available at full value.

To this end – Newton v Allen makes for a fascinating battle for the last man standing – if based on experience and a track record of delivery in East Belfast, it’s Robin Newton’s to win and that will mark the death knell for the UUP as a elected force not only in East Belfast, but across the Belfast area as a whole.

Difficult to see the hard times lifting off the shoulders of Mike Nesbitt. His Belfast problem is only likely to intensify: even if he keeps Andy’s seat, not least because of the outflow of activists.

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  • Ryan A

    Would far from say the DUP have three lock stock and barrel in North Belfast. Alliance came 7th last time and their transfers may help nationalists out when it comes to holding their three seats but it’s dependent largely on SF managing 2 better than the DUP manage 3.

    East Belfast also have form for putting the DUP on the naughty step so it’s likely a loss for Newton or Douglas Junior. That’s what the concensus from LucidTalk was anyway.

  • Msiegnaro

    I agree with your analysis, however if East Belfast is renowned for the naughty step the Alliance should be in trouble too. It’s incredulous that this party which is wholly inadequate at bread and butter issues continually gains at the polls.

  • Msiegnaro

    Internal division is rife within the UUP, at the last election in EB, Allen and McGimpsey were uneasy bedfellows.

    In FST Patterson and Barton were at war with each other which eventually led to Patterson defecting to the DUP. Since then the UUP in FST has lost more members, a councillor has defected to the DUP and their Young Unionst association in the area is in disarray with the chairwoman resigning from the party.

    Poor leadership is evident within the UUP and there is also a difficulty in ascertaining exactly what they stand for.

  • mjh

    Unless there is a swing of about 1.6% of the total votes since last year away from the UUP in favour of the DUP the result in East Belfast will be 2 Alliance, 2 DUP and 1 UUP.

    So about 600 of the 4142 votes the UUP got last year would have to move to the DUP.

    Meanwhile the DUP’s third seat would only be held by a whisker on last year’s vote. There are number of different swings between the 5 main parties any one of which would reduce the DUP to two. A couple of those options would involve the switch of less than 500 votes. The most likely gainer would be Alliance.

  • Gaygael

    As a point, Cobain did not retire. He ran in 2011 as UUP and did not get reelected.

  • Gaygael

    Alliances vote fell at the last election. By 0.7% compared to 2011.
    Surprisingly, despite long predicting 11 and Ford suggesting between 11-14, they made no gains, and were in trouble in south Antrim.

  • Brendan Heading

    I hate to say it but the party gains at the polls because voters don’t agree with your worldview. No other party has the same degree of focus on bread and butter issues.

  • Ryan A

    Alliance have grown at every election in East Belfast since 2007. Which Bread & Butter issues are they inadequate at?

    I don’t see voters returning to the UUP anytime soon; frankly I don’t know what it stands for these days. 2015 into bed with the DUP; 2016 Vote Mike; get Colum.

  • Ryan A

    I think Ford will do better this time given the close shave the last time as the party focused efforts on N. Belfast. If anything his principled stand against those within his own church won’t do him one bit of harm when it comes to left/centre/Green transfers.

  • AntrimGael

    North Belfast: 2 DUP, 1 SF, 1 SDLP and a fight out for the last seat between the PBP, DUP, SF and Alliance with maybe the DUP taking it. All depends if Unionists punish the DUP for RHI but given the North Belfast Unionist vote is still mostly based on sectarian lines the DUP will probably keep 3.

  • Brendan Heading

    I wouldn’t characterise Fred Cobain’s defeat in 2011 as some kind of voluntary retirement. He spent his time as an MLA doing next to nothing of note and his voters quite correctly punished him.

    The UUP have been in decline in Belfast for at least ten years. They were eclipsed by the DUP because they simply allowed themselves to get complacent, and they remain complacent. I’ve been canvassed by the UUP a couple of times – their activists still don’t know how to do an effective canvass and do no work on tracking their vote.

    The pact was, I think, the last nail in the coffin especially in North and East Belfast. It was an admission that, when it gets down to brass tacks, it’s all about preserving the status of unionism rather than even attempting to offer a genuinely alternative vision of the union. On the RHI debacle, the UUP have been basically nowhere – Nesbitt blurted out immediately a call for Foster to resign, without waiting for an inquiry; after that there was nowhere else for him to go.

    I don’t understand the point of the UUP. I’d be happy for someone to explain it to me.

  • Msiegnaro

    That’s it Brendan.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’d agree that the DUP vote in North Belfast is going nowhere, not least because the campaign is being managed by one of the DUP’s senior strategists. Holding three will still be a remarkable result.

    What happens to the last seat all depends. If it were a re-run of the state of play last May, the SDLP would easily walk in on Alliance transfers at the end of the count. If there is a decent bounce for Alliance over RHI, especially given that the UUP are running an unknown, it might change this time, but this would require Alliance to pick up at least another ~1500 votes – a little more than the same kind of bump they managed between 2011 and 2016.

  • Brendan Heading

    about 400 of the Green’s 689 voters transferred last time ..

  • Ryan A

    If I recall correct Lunn was in a similar risky situation and still pulled decisively ahead on transfers.

  • Brendan Heading

    David is cheerfully optimistic about South Antrim. He tends to get these things right 😉

    Lagan Valley looks safe to me. With the SDLP transfers Trevor was elected well over quota; with the same result, he would be very comfortable in a five seater.

    (aside – what on earth happened to SF in Lagan Valley between 2007 and 2011 ?!?)

  • John Gorman

    Boundary changes. A number of wards got shifted into west belfast

  • Ryan A

    Lagmore, Dunmurry and Glenavy shifted out. One could call it a blatant gerrymander on face value but it made sense on the ground with local ties with the possible exception of Glenavy.

  • Stephen Warke

    I was trying to be polite but I take your point on enforced retirement.

  • Stephen Warke

    Unsure how Alliance stand to gain, when as I’ve outlined, based on May 2016 figures, there are over 4,000 full value unionist transfers available.

  • Stephen Warke

    My understanding is that under the new 5 seat system, Barton is in major difficulty

  • Stephen Warke

    There’s the suggestion that the UUP vote has departed to the Alliance as a direct result of the UUP abdicating the middle class vote to the Alliance – it’s hard to argue against.

  • Ryan A

    I’d tend to disagree.

    If you look at South Belfast; In 2011 the SDLP swept up 40% of Lo’s Surplus vs the UUP’s 19%. That was against a very liberal/moderate UUP ticket.

    In North Belfast Nuala McAllister took her Castle council seat from SF; not the UUP.

    East Belfast has always had a strong Alliance vote going back to the days of John Alderdice in the late nineties when the party took ~20% in elections. The modern day growth on that figure is likely fueled by slow but steady demographic change in the leafier parts of Ormiston and the fact liberals and the middle classes know the DUP will be looking over their shoulder at Alliance for a long time to come there.

    The UUP had a brief recovery in Belfast if you look at the Council elections. It appears the fear tactics of ‘stopping SF becoming FM’ resonates in Belfast at least.

  • Msiegnaro

    Correct, Barton was reasonably effective as a Councillor but has been anonymous as an MLA. Harry West’s daughter was co-opted onto Barton’s old council seat and the Barton camp have been looking at taking this back should the Assembly campaign prove a failure.

  • Stephen Warke

    The UUP’s vote in EB had a decline of ~3,500 votes between 1998 and 2007, down to ~6,000 – where we did it go? I’d suggest it split between Alliance and DUP. There has been a further loss of ~2,000 votes from 2007 to 2016. Again, where has this gone? I’d suggest Alliance and DUP have done equally as well as a result of the UUP’s demise. Nesbitt’s liberal tendencies have not helped the party in either East or South Belfast.

  • Gaygael

    Trying to be polite doesn’t seem to be your intention with the hyperbole in this commentary.

    I think it’s more of a hatchet job on the UUP and dog whistle that the only unionists left in Belfast are the homophobic DUP.

  • Ryan A

    To be fair the real car crash was 2011 under Elliott and the party hasn’t recovered. Nesbitt has tried to correct this but Alliance has already stolen a march on social issues and applied the whip so the party position is clear. The problem with the UUP is the liberal wing has learned that when it comes to the crunch the traditional wing will always win out (chief examples being the abandonment of UCUNF; Tom Elliott’s election as leader; Unionist Unity pacts and so on); and that is what puts moderates in the East of NI off I think.

  • AntrimGael

    I think Nicola Mallon has established herself enough in North Belfast and along with the loyal, core Alban Maginnis SDLP vote, she should get in. The Shinners could be in trouble especially Caral Ui Chulain as Nationalists won’t take 3 seats. As I said the Unionist/Loyalist vote in North Belfast WON’T give a monkeys about RHI, come election time it’s ALWAYS 1690 for them. Definitely 2 DUP and more than likely 3 unless PBP, UUP transfers go to Alliance.

  • Msiegnaro

    Gaygael, it is refreshing to read someone putting an honest view forward rather that the usual pro EU, Hilary SF and Alliance agenda that we are spoonfed on a daily basis. One is also aware of a rule in which one should play the ball rather than the man on Slugger?

  • Msiegnaro

    I didn’t know Cobain jumped to the DUP and stood for election in 2014.

  • Stephen Warke

    Please highlight the hyperbole, I challenge you to outline where anything I have written above isn’t accurate.

  • Stephen Warke

    Duly noted you are unable to account for the voter decline in East Belfast in your response.

  • mjh

    Of course, Stephen. My fault. The last paragraph should have started- “Meanwhile in North Belfast…”
    I hope you didn’t waste too much time trying to make sense of it.

  • hotdogx

    Extremophiles are always the last ones left in any difficult environment

  • Granni Trixie

    Sorry Stephen but that was my impression too. Perhaps it was because in two constituencies “hard working” representatives was the reason for success – in each case for the DUP. Then there are crucial omissions to put the piece in context: factors likely to have impact on how people vote e.g. RHI scandal damaging to the DUP in particular or in EB that PR lost his seat or that Robin Newtown baggage acquired as Speaker and through association with particular funding schemes.

    I was really surprised,given the subject matter, that you also did not refer at all to the impact (or not) of what to many was a sectarian DUP-UUP pact which though getting some candidates over the line (notably in EB) Arguably damages the UUP more than the DUP as the former positions itself to attract ‘moderate’ votes.
    All in all the post comes across as tilted in favour of the DUP – which is fair enough if you declare your bias.
    For this reason and to be fair to you I say that it would be helpful if posters on Slugger had a line or two of relevant bio.

  • Granni Trixie

    The medium is the message – is it not fair enough to know if this is written from a DUP perspective? What’s wrong with that?

  • Msiegnaro

    As it often is, however on Slugger we have ample anti Unionst posters and bloggers. This is refreshing as it’s a different and possibly more accurate article. I take your point on the messenger though.

  • Granni Trixie

    Why decontextualise the DUP from the RHI scandal? Don’t you believe it is having impact?
    At last election the DUP strategy was to focus on Arlene as DUP leader presumably to shed PR stigma. Now it is she who is mired in controversy the DUP by association. Sure to affect voting patterns don’t you think?

  • Granni Trixie

    The UUP at times tries to appeal to liberal voters and yet keep those with DUP orientation on board resulting in condradictionary messages. Pacts undermine belief that they mean what they say.

    From living in SB i would argue that liberal goes down well here.

  • Ryan A

    Sorry; of course. It’s in Roselawn in my humble opinion.

  • Granni Trixie

    I agree insofar as I welcome the post as contributing to a fuller spectrum of opinion.

  • Stephen Warke

    I take the point, however there is no hyperbole intended or given. The point is made above how UUP representatives were ‘old guard’ and ‘poor candidates’ and thus it’s possible they were not doing the same work on the ground which allowed others to come in and ‘earn a vote’ rather than what seemed to be the case for a while that the UUP felt they deserved the vote simply because they were the UUP.

    The post itself is in the context of Assembly Elections. To look at Westminster, quite frankly, makes the issue a lot more complicated than it needs to be – in the same vein as the points you raise, you could look to the damage caused by UCUNF, Lady Hermon, Alan McFarland – all caused by Empey’s poor leadership, however I’ve sought to solely dwell on the numbers, which speak for themselves.

    My bio should be available to see on the site – it was completed yesterday before I put this post up, so there should be no doubt as to my views and where I stand. If you’re saying it’s not there or you can’t see it – I’ll certainly raise that with Mick.

  • Stephen Warke

    As already outlined above, bio competed yesterday and if it is not showing then I will ask Mick to resolve. There is no attempt on my part to hide from my views nor whose whom i support politically.

  • Stephen Warke

    That’s fair comment – UUP is squeezed on the left by Alliance and by the DUP on the centre-right. Leaving them no where to go and at that point, how many more elections before they really properly consider their reason for existence?

  • Granni Trixie

    We’re on the same page now!

  • Granni Trixie

    Not to mentionthe principled stand in not going into government because the FM/DFM refused to discuss or compromise over Alliance conditions e.g. Reforms such as the POC.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Good Post and the facts speak for themselves about the state of Unionism in Belfast but with Unionist Turnout likely to dip below 50% in the city in a few weeks time is having the DUP Kingmakers of Unionism in Belfast good for Unionism ? and leaving other unionists demoralized where they have given up on politics good for the Union ? Me thinks Not !

  • JM

    How are alliance inadequate?

  • JM

    No one has mentioned the UUP’s trailblazing tv election ad factor. Very funny including Nesbits ‘petrol blue’ suit in front of the pellet blazing fire!

  • Msiegnaro

    Well they’re not exactly reflective of the working classes. I have had dealings with them and they were found lacking. Long also needs to lose the angry aggressive persona.