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.
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.
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, 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.
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.