Why a Unionist pact is almost certain

The new Ulster Unionist leader, Robin Swann, will have had rather less time than he would have liked to shape his party’s attitude to the idea of pacts and co-operation with the DUP, not least while the UUP are still licking their wounds following the disappointing assembly result of six weeks ago.

Both parties face a rather stark set of circumstances. Both are financially depleted, facing their third election within 12 months and looking to the prospect of a further assembly election before the end of this year. The two parties, in addition, are reeling from the poor yield of Unionist assembly seats overall and the general threat posed by a reinvigorated Sinn Féin, as well as the slow bleed of votes towards the non-tribal centre represented by Alliance and the Greens.

If Sinn Féin position their election around maximising vote share, this complicates the pact calculation. Pacts have been shown to impact turnout – due to people believing that the result is a foregone conclusion – and are likely to cause a drop in the overall share of the Unionist vote. This effect is most pronounced in East Belfast, where the combined Unionist share in 2015 of 49.3% appears to be the lowest Unionist share in the history of the seat (I checked back as far as the 1960s). This is in a constituency where Unionism would consistently poll at least in the high 60%s – often higher – and where Peter Robinson once stormed home with 81% of the vote. The effect is much less pronounced in Fermanagh South Tyrone and North Belfast, where demographic shifts are playing their role. In Newry and Armagh, Danny Kennedy lost 5% of the combined vote from 2010, although his support level remains holed around the combined Unionist vote level in the years prior to that.

The danger of sacrificing vote share is the possibility that nationalism could edge further towards the 50% support threshold that would create real pressure upon the Secretary of State to call a border poll. But the signs are nonetheless that the two parties will plump for the psychological victory of maintaining or increasing the number of Unionist seats in Westminster. It’s likely that we will see a Unionist pact not only wider in scope, but oriented more in favour of the DUP than the previous pact of 2015. With the UUP somewhat weakened, the DUP are well placed to dictate terms, and the two parties will each be keen to avoid an expensive election campaign where they can.

My guess at this point is that the DUP will offer the UUP a free run in the two parliamentary seats they already hold, alongside Newry and Armagh. Danny Kinahan enjoys a degree of cross-community support and stands a chance of benefiting from non-Unionist tactical votes; the DUP would have to work hard to displace him. It’s not clear who they would run in the area; their three MLAs are quite well known, so it would depend on whether any of them wished to leave the Assembly. The DUP also know they have no chance in Fermanagh South Tyrone or Newry & Armagh. Michelle Gildernew is likely to put up a formidable fight in a constituency that is 58% pro-remain and which stands to be heavily impacted by any issues that arise from the UK’s departure from the EU.

In exchange, the DUP will require, in addition to support in North and East Belfast, that the UUP stay away from South Belfast, a constituency where they are unable to even win an assembly seat. A Unionist pact would almost guarantee a DUP MP, at the expense of some vote share. Unionists face a high price, from their perspective, for failing to agree a pact. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir may have trailed in 2015, but a resurgent Sinn Féin campaign could lead to the party squeezing through the middle.

With this pact in place, the principal threat to a Unionist parliamentary seat outside of F&ST is in East Belfast. Speaking on the Nolan Show this morning, Alliance leader Naomi Long indicated her willingness to run, but said that the decision is in the hands of the party. The DUP will not be able to hold this seat without a pact, and a loss here would come at some cost to Arlene Foster’s authority.

In all of the other existing Unionist seats I’d expect the two Unionist parties to run a fairly soft, inexpensive campaign, and may well agree to a protocol on this as part of their pact. The Ulster Unionist Party does not have the resources or capability to bring about a push against the DUP in places like Upper Bann or East Antrim. Likewise, there is no point in battling it out in seats that Sinn Féin easily hold, such as Mid Ulster. After a bruising Assembly election campaign, they’ll be happy to settle with no overall change, especially if that involves holding three out of the four Belfast seats.