What I heard Alex Kane suggest – and I paraphrase liberally – was that the General Election campaign in Northern Ireland has become a quiet exercise within unionism to reassert its dominance at the ballot box after a scare in March when unionist ‘lost’ its majority of seats in the Assembly and just 1,168 first preference votes separated the DUP and Sinn Féin. [Update – Alex has written about it this morning in the News Letter.]
At the time, Arlene Foster called it “a brutal result for unionism”, but the scaremongering I expected to hear has been very quiet. But perhaps around the doors and Orange Halls the message is being passed on that unionist voters can’t be complacent and can’t ‘allow’ Sinn Féin to take a lead in this election.
Of course, Sinn Féin want to build on the nationalist surge of March and seize the opportunity to stretch further to overtake the DUP.
The graphics departments at BBC and UTV should make sure they have a shiny Unionist / Nationalist / Other graphic to use in the early hours of 9 June.
Realising that this election may have become a DUP vs Sinn Féin run off to tally the most votes – which is a little more sophisticated than a simple sectarian headcount – gives a framework to understand some other aspects of the lacklustre campaign.
In a different situation, Sinn Féin might have been expected to introduce a lesser-known candidate to the South Belfast electorate and do the minimum of campaigning to ensure Alasdair McDonnell keeps the seat for nationalism. In 2010 Sinn Féin withdrew their candidate after his posters had gone up and did not contest the seat. But this time, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s team is actively campaigning (though the candidate did slip away mid-campaign to pick up an honorary degree in the US) and trying to maximise their votes – and boosting Emma Little-Pengelly’s chances in the meantime – even though Sinn Féin are not in contention to win.
It explains why big hitters like John O’Dowd are contesting in Upper Bann and Chris Hazzard in South Down. As someone on the panel suggested last night, becoming an abstentionist MP is a poor career move for a capable MLA who was Minister for Infrastructure, yet he’s a serious contender to replace Margaret Ritchie who may not get so many unionist votes in this election.
It gives a context for the UDA’s call in the Loyalist Magazine for voters to back the DUP.
The UUP could do badly in this election as some of their traditional supporters give the DUP a boost. Bad news for Danny Kinahan who soon may no longer be king of the electoral castle in South Antrim. (He’s already moved out of the old the actual castle and it’s up for sale.)
Of course, close to home I don’t see any evidence of the DUP vote maximisation strategy. Other than getting Jeffrey Donaldson’s posters up quickly before the Balmoral Show at the Maze, there has been no evidence of canvassing on my street. Maybe effort is being concentrated in dense loyalist areas first in this safest of seats?
Neither a rising tide nor demographic changes can really be resisted. The DUP don’t need a mini-surge of lent votes. They need a set of policies that attract and sustain voter support.
As one audience member passionately articulated last night, it is depressing that this my party’s vote is bigger than your party’s vote exercise is once again keeping Northern Ireland politics from discussing real issues.
Every day there is a news story about Brexit, the local economy and industry that cries out for a proper strategy to address the skills gaps in the marketplace. But we still have no budget, and no Executive to steer investment towards building the prosperity that politicians so often speak about. The reconfiguration of health services and priorities are further delayed.
And at the time of writing we’re D-27 heading towards the Secretary of State’s deadline to form an Executive or else face rule from London that stops short of dissolving the Assembly and being full Direct Rule.
Of course, a strong DUP (winning Belfast South and South Antrim) and a strong Sinn Féin (winning Fermanagh & South Tyrone and South Down) would allow the two parties to take some risks and do a deal to bring back the Executive.