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Robinson left standing by Nesbitt's fancy footwork

By Alex Kane

Published 11/09/2015

Two weeks ago Sinn Fein had a problem. Today the problem seems to be about unionism - particularly the relationship between the DUP and the UUP.

Instead of Peter Robinson being able to focus almost entirely on his personal relationship with Martin McGuinness and the DUP relationship with Sinn Fein, he has had to spend a lot of time thinking about Mike Nesbitt. And you can be pretty certain that Robinson never imagined that the day would come when he would have to think about Nesbitt.

But Nesbitt has outflanked him and wrong-footed him. Worse, much worse from Robinson's perspective, is that Nesbitt seems do have done something which has proved very popular across unionism. Indeed, a LucidTalk poll in Tuesday's Belfast Telegraph suggests that over 80% of unionists believe that the UUP was right to withdraw from the Executive because Sinn Fein couldn't be trusted. What many people - embracing unionism and nationalism - believe is that Robinson is just reacting to Nesbitt, rather than to Sinn Fein.

None of this would matter all that much if there wasn't an election in the offing. But there is: and it could come within a matter of weeks. That worries Robinson - which is why he wanted adjournment or suspension - particularly since Sinn Fein seems very keen on an early election.

The DUP presently has 38 MLAs to Sinn Fein's 29. The UUP's tail is up at the moment and Nesbitt reckons that he can pick off a few of those DUP MLAs who came in on last or low counts. That, I think, is a huge task, but not impossible. But to become a major headache for the DUP it would require the loss of a handful of their seats to be accompanied by an increase in Sinn Fein's tally.

The DUP doesn't take risks when it comes to elections, so we can now expect a brutal, bloody, no-holds-barred showdown between the DUP and UUP. Forget pacts and "electoral understandings".

Look out, too, for both the TUV and Ukip laying into Nesbitt - because those parties probably fear that the UUP now looks like a credible and attractive option to those who want to damage the DUP.

And bear in mind that almost 40,000 people voted for them in the 2014 local government elections. Nesbitt is clearly appealing to those voters as well as to UUP voters who drifted to the DUP: and he will also have an eye on PUP voters in places like East Belfast.

Normally, I would call this for the DUP, expecting them to play the "do you want Martin McGuinness/Gerry Kelly as First Minister" card.

But against a background in which Nesbitt has surprised most of us and Robinson has seemed uncharacteristically ham-fisted and dithery, then anything is possible. I don't expect the electoral mathematics will put Sinn Fein into the First Minister's office, but it's worth remembering that these bruising encounters do huge damage to unionism.

Belfast Telegraph

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