Belfast Telegraph

Friday 21 November 2014

DUP still happy to play the 'us and them' card

Peter Robinson on the election trail
Peter Robinson on the election trail

It didn't take the DUP long to reach for the First Minister issue once the going got tough. An ancient blunderbuss that could work, or could blow up in their face, I called it last week.

Clearly, the DUP thinks it is worth the risking a few shots from old reliable. The risk of a low turnout and the fear that smaller parties will eat into the record-breaking vote they scored in 2007 sinks in.

Up to now the party has said it isn't raising the issue proactively and that this election is about bread-and-butter issues in a shared Northern Ireland, where the Union is secure. The First Minister issue doesn't even feature in their manifesto.

That may be where they want to go, but they aren't quite there yet. They are, as I said last week, still crossing the river and haven't quite broken free of the politics of "us and them".

First, there were reports of an anonymous texting campaign in loyalist areas urging unionists to take a stance against Sinn Fein by turning out to vote.

The DUP may not be orchestrating that campaign, but it can only serve their interests.

Now their latest canvass leaflet has hit the streets; one was thrust into my hand by my local DUP candidate earlier this week.

"DUP - The Only Unionist Party That Can Win" it read. "This election really matters," it continued. "There is a real risk that Sinn Fein could top the poll and Martin McGuinness could become First Minister.

"That would lead us down the wrong road. We believe it is essential that a unionist party shapes your future not Sinn Fein."

Then there are appeals not to split the unionist vote by backing the UUP, but they don't seem too worried about the TUV.

This section of the leaflet concludes: "The UUP cannot win this election. Only the DUP can win." It is illustrated with a graph showing the Sinn Fein and DUP vote on level-pegging.

There is no denying that this is an appeal to tribal loyalty, very similar to the one they made in the 2009 European election.

Then they argued that, unless the DUP topped the poll as normal, it would be a bad day for the Union and would send a message of instability to the rest of the world.

In fact, the DUP came third in that contest, with Sinn Fein topping the poll, but now we are told the Union is more secure than ever. In reality, our security and our attractiveness as a place to do business is built on the stability of the devolved institutions.

Both voters and people with money to invest need to be confident that Stormont can survive any electoral outcome and not come tumbling down if a new party pulls ahead.

Of course, this is an election and parties that don't fight for dominance at this point in the political cycle don't survive.

Just like Sinn Fein and the other parties, the DUP will be tempted to pull any lever it can as the poll draws near. It is a carefully calculated risk - but it is still a risk.

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