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Arlene Foster's recruiting call may be music to ears of those driven by a raw political ambition

Published 01/06/2016

Raymond Farrell with Arlene Foster and, left, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt
Raymond Farrell with Arlene Foster and, left, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt

Fermanagh councillor Raymond Farrell quit the UUP over a 'lack of leadership' before rejoining the DUP. But is his defection a flash in the pan, or are the tectonic plates starting to shift under unionism? Suzanne Breen reports.

A member of a far-flung rural council defecting to another party is hardly a game-changer in our political landscape. Fermanagh councillor Raymond Farrell, who has just joined the DUP, is well-liked and respected locally but he is not a household name outside of his own bailiwick.

Yet the DUP is playing up the former Ulster Unionist's move and, most significantly, is claiming it's the start of a trend that will become apparent over coming weeks as the names of new converts are revealed.

"Let battle commence!" Mike Nesbitt declared as he announced that his party had made the brave, bold decision to go into Opposition.

But, with Mr Farrell's defection, the DUP hollered its own war cry.

DUP sources claim that a number of Ulster Unionists - allegedly uneasy about entering the "wilderness of Opposition" and unconvinced by Mr Nesbitt's leadership - have either already defected to their party or are on the brink of doing so.

A senior DUP source said his party had recruited "a double digit number" of UUP grassroots members as well as several councillors. He claimed that some of Mr Nesbitt's 16 MLAs now felt "uncomfortable" in the party.

Yet the DUP is not expected to secure any MLA's scalp.

The DUP insider claimed that young UUP members were particularly concerned that the party was sailing into oblivion. "They don't know where their party stands on anything, whereas our message is crystal clear," he said.

"UUP members complain that Mike Nesbitt is all over the place ideologically, that he flip-flops from one position to the next. While the party seemed to be on an upward trajectory, Mike got away with that. However, after the UUP's worst ever Assembly election results, the momentum has gone."

The DUP source said that Peter Robinson had been a barrier to some disillusioned UUP members joining. "They saw Peter perhaps as too aggressive, whereas in Arlene they see someone who is not divisive and who is capable of being the leader of unionism," he added.

UUP sources dismiss the DUP's claims as "pure propaganda" and say that the defection of "one councillor who actually left many months ago" should be kept in perspective.

They insist that their party has been energised by the decision to go into Opposition and is "raring to go" in its new role of holding the Executive to account.

The UUP points to its own enviable recent record of attracting defectors from across the political spectrum, including high-profile ex-Lisburn DUP councillor and whistleblower Jenny Palmer, who was elected as an MLA last month.

Independent North Down unionist Alan Chambers - now also an MLA - and TUV councillor David Arthurs are among the new UUP arrivals.

That a dominant DUP will continue seeking to pick off disgruntled members of other unionist parties is obvious.

Once the party of protest, it is now the party of power, and like any swaggering, successful organisation it will attempt to put its rivals out of business and maximise its own position.

"The DUP is very brazen about its intentions," said a well-placed unionist source.

"If it sees talent in another party, it makes its move. It pounces on able, up-and-coming politicians.

"It made a move on a young TUV Assembly candidate and a young UUP candidate at their election counts."

Neither candidate was apparently tempted by the DUP's blandishments, but with those for whom raw political ambition is the driving force, Arlene Foster's party is an attractive option in terms of career progression.

At the next Assembly election the number of MLAs per constituency reduces from six to five.

"That will concentrate minds," said one unionist source. "In Newry and Armagh, for instance, there is only one unionist seat. I wouldn't rule out the DUP trying to court Danny Kennedy, although I doubt they'd get beyond first base with him."

In Britain, once the glitz of the grand entrance of those who have defected to rival political parties has faded, they usually sink without trace.

But those who have jumped ship to the DUP have fared famously well.

Foster's ascendancy has shown just how far and fast promotion can be.

New Education Minister Peter Weir is also a former Ulster Unionist Party member, as are most of the DUP's senior strategists.

A DUP insider said: "Anyone from the UUP who joins us will be as warmly welcomed as Arlene herself was back in 2004. While there will be no special privileges, they will be on an equal footing with lifetime DUP members. Our party couldn't be more meritocratic."

That's the recruiting call, but whether there is anyone as remotely talented as Foster waiting in the wings is another matter entirely.

Belfast Telegraph

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