Rivals accuse unionist unity candidate of running scared from electorate
Rival parties have demanded that the agreed unionist candidate standing against them in the imminent Mid Ulster by-election come out and face the electorate.
With just days to go before polls open, voters have yet to lay eyes on the candidate backed by the DUP and UUP.
Nigel Lutton is fast becoming the talk of the Mid Ulster by-election – because of his absence.
Only those who saw him hand in his nomination papers have spotted the United Unionist candidate in the constituency he has vowed to represent at Westminster. That was the day Mr Lutton said he was "looking forward to the campaign ahead".
SDLP candidate Patsy McGlone said no-one had seen Mr Lutton on their doorstep yet.
"It is very insulting to the electorate. I haven't encountered the man, my election team haven't seen him anywhere," he said.
Sinn Fein candidate Francie Molloy was equally mystified.
"I haven't seen Nigel Lutton canvassing at all and I have only seen his team once, last Saturday. We have seen his posters but with no photographs," said the man who aims to replace Martin McGuinness as MP.
Press interview requests have been treated as a nuisance.
"He hasn't done any journalistic interviews at all, and that is really my difficulty because six or seven want to canvass with him. So as soon as I get one person, everyone will want to do it," complained a DUP Press officer who is handling his publicity.
Mr Lutton isn't giving out his phone number because he didn't want to be bothered with calls and was a "wild hard working man, always busy".
As freelance embalmer, Mr Lutton has to be frequently on call. When he is on call, the DUP has said he can't be more than 15 minutes from his base – which is situated outside the constituency in Co Armagh.
The handler claimed Mr Lutton won't take any time off work for the election and that he is concentrating on local papers as the most effective means of reaching the electorate.
But they can't contact him either.
"They are almost admitting defeat by not giving interviews. I have hit a brick wall – I can't get talking to him at all. Are they scared that he will get asked something he can't answer?" wondered Patricia Devlin of the Mid Ulster Mail and Tyrone Times.
Seven days before polling, the two weekly papers which are read throughout the constituency have received only one 300-word statement. It was issued by the DUP Press Office on Mr Lutton's behalf. Ironically, it takes Sinn Fein to task for not representing Mid Ulster adequately and speaks of sending out "a positive message".
Television fares no better. UTV have been trying to reach him all week and last night broadcast a report admitting he "was not available for interview". He also held out against appearing on the BBC's politics programme The View, which wanted to interview a panel of all candidates last night.
Even the News Letter, which officially endorsed his candidature, has not been allowed to speak to him.
Alliance candidate Eric Bullick said: "If a person chooses to stand for election they should expect to have to talk to the media."
They seek him here, they seek him there... so where has the 'Orange Pimpernel' Lutton vanished to?
By Liam Clarke
The battle for the Mid Ulster seat was expected to be a bitterly fought campaign dominated by a unionist unity candidate and the republican accused in Parliament of involvement in his father's murder.
Nigel Lutton's father Frederick, a former RUC Reservist, was gunned down by the IRA in May 1979.
In 2007, David Simpson – a DUP MP and Mr Lutton's cousin – used parliamentary privilege to accuse Francie Molloy, the Sinn Fein candidate, of setting him up.
Mr Molloy has categorically denied this and said he is willing to debate it with Mr Lutton. It was this debate that was expected to dominate the campaign.
But, as yet, it has not been raised.
Instead, the talking point has been Mr Lutton's whereabouts. A member of the loyal orders, he has been dubbed the 'Orange Pimpernel' after Baroness d'Orczy's elusive French Revolutionary hero The Scarlet Pimpernel.
"We seek him here, we seek him there ... That damned, elusive Pimpernel," as the comic song goes – although the joke is wearing a bit thin.
The fact is that, as Alliance candidate Eric Bullick put it: "Mr Lutton was meant to be the big hope of unionism but his refusal to outline his views will make it hard for the public to make an opinion of him."
The people who promoted him as such were the two main unionist leaders, the DUP's Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt of the UUP.
Mr Lutton's performance goes to the heart of their credibility. Mr Nesbitt, in particular, is already suffering.
He split his party in the name of unionist unity and lost two MLAs, one of them in a safe seat, as soon as the unity deal was announced.
The main effect of the contest may be on the relationship between the DUP and UUP. Realistically the DUP, as the larger, more confident party, is likely to emerge on top.
Barring a miracle, unionists can't win Mid Ulster. If they do then all mistakes along the way will be forgotten.
The joint unionist project will be judged on whether Mr Lutton can beat the 31% combined total achieved by the DUP, UUP and TUV last time around.
If he can't improve on it significantly then the argument for standing as separate parties will be hard to answer.
As it is, running a joint candidate who is largely absent from the campaign risks reducing the by election to a sectarian headcount – and one unionists are unlikely to win.
Even with Sinn Fein's big vote getter, Martin McGuinness, out of the frame, Francie Molloy is still runaway favourite to win. Sinn Fein got 40.9% of the vote last time and if it is reduced to religion terms the proportion of Catholics in the constituency is 66.7%
Mr Molloy believes that many of the remaining Protestants will not be motivated to vote against him. "Between 50% and 60% of our advice centre work comes from people of unionist background," he claimed. "I don't know if many of those people will bring themselves to vote Sinn Fein, but they mustn't be satisfied with the level of unionist representation so they may not turn out."
Unionists are hoping that they can also motivate some Catholics to vote for them on the basis that Sinn Fein does not take its seats at Westminster. In his single Press statement of the campaign, Mr Lutton argued that the election was "about returning an MP who will speak up for their constituents".
"I believe the resentment towards an MP who takes every financial benefit from Westminster but refuses to do their full job crosses all religious and political barriers," he said.
Last night Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP MP for Lagan Valley, endorsed this argument. He said the election gave people "a genuine opportunity to end the 16 years of drift and non-representation that their community has had to endure at the hands of an absentee MP".
"There is a fundamental issue at stake here which cuts across the unionist-nationalist divide."
The talk of making voices heard rang a little hollow in view of the fact that the unionist candidate has not spoken to the media.
Last night, Mr Lutton pulled out of a TV debate on the BBC. Then Mr Molloy pulled out too, saying he would only appear if all four candidates were present. Presumably, as favourite, the Sinn Fein man calculated he had little to gain from appearing on a panel with the SDLP and Alliance who, in the Assembly elections last year, got just 15.6% of the vote between them.
These two comparative minnows are hoping they can build up their vote by offering an alternative to the big political blocs. Both Patsy McGlone, of the SDLP, and Eric Bullick of Alliance have said that the electorate is being treated with contempt by absentee Sinn Fein MPs and the absentee united unionist candidate.
Mr McGlone in particular is eager to debate with the other candidates. "I want to see how much they know about the constituency and the issues," said the SDLP man, who lives in Cookstown and was educated in Magherafelt, the two main towns in the constituency. He points out that that Mr Lutton lives in Upper Bann.
Mr Bullick is hoping for a cross-community vote. The Alliance man is best known for his work in the integrated education movement and is the former headmaster at Omagh Integrated Primary School.