Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

DUP needs to be smart in the art of election warfare

Liam Clarke

What do voters really, really want? That's the question our politicians - and especially the DUP - can't quite get a handle on.

On the one hand, everyone from the TUV to Sinn Fein has been turning out manifestos and policy documents which major on such issues as health, the economy and slimming down government.

On the other, Peter Robinson said, in answer to questions, that one of the main things he is asked about on doorsteps is who will be First Minister - him or Martin McGuinness.

It is undoubtedly a talking-point; people wonder how it would turn out and DUP strategists believe it could happen in a perfect electoral storm.

Yet, when we asked residents in the mainly nationalist Culmore area of Londonderry and the traditionally loyalist Village district of Belfast what concerned them going into the election, it never came up.

Admittedly, that wasn't a scientific survey, but how many people do you hear talking about who will be First Minister compared to health, jobs, rising prices or the size of government at Stormont?

There is a gap here between what people say to DUP canvassers and what they say elsewhere. With an election coming, politicians can't afford to get this one wrong.

They could do worse than turn to Sun Tzu, whose 2,500-year-old classic The Art of War is still studied in military and business schools.

The Chinese strategist believed the most dangerous moment for an army comes when it is crossing a river. Since it is moving away from its old position, and has not yet fortified a new one, it is vulnerable to attack from all sides.

In this election our politicians face such a moment of change. So far, the DUP has not raised the issue of Orange/Green rivalry proactively, but they must be tempted as they attempt to mobilise unionist voters behind them for May 5.

Yet, if they overdo it, they could conceivably start losing voters to the UUP or Alliance. And, since they have formed a close working relationship with Sinn Fein rather than other unionists at Stormont, it leaves them vulnerable to the accusation of saying one thing and doing another if they call for unionist unity at the polls.

Like the army in the river, both the DUP and Sinn Fein are vulnerable until they get across. The issue of who will be First Minister lurks in the background like an ageing blunderbuss: it has been effective in the past, but if they use it now it could blow up in their faces.

What voters want can also be judged by the positive reception the cross-community show of unity at Constable Ronan Kerr's funeral Mass.

That is a sign that people want stability, not a sham fight. Voters may raise other points on the doorstep, but people aren't always consistent. And, anyway, they often tell politicians what they think they want to hear.

Candidates cannot afford to underestimate the popular aspiration for stability and a shared future.

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