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Seconds out in the red, white and blue corner as Foster and Nesbitt do battle for heart and soul of Unionism

Keeping Martin McGuinness out of the First Minister's chair is but a sideshow. For the DUP and UUP, next month's Assembly election is a dogfight for the heart and soul of a belief in the Union, writes Alex Kane

Published 07/04/2016

Mike Nesbitt and Arlene Foster
Mike Nesbitt and Arlene Foster
John Kyle
Jim Allister

Even though the opinion poll, anecdotal, doorstep and "received wisdom" evidence would suggest that the DUP should be very confident about the outcome of the Assembly election, it is clear that the party is taking nothing for granted.

In a statement last week Arlene Foster said that it would be a "close" election, while Nigel Dodds noted: "Let us not forget that in two of the last three province-wide elections since 2011, Sinn Fein edged ahead of the DUP in terms of first-preference votes. Only in last year's Westminster election did the DUP regain the top spot, but by fewer than 10,000 votes across the country. So there is no guarantee of a DUP victory."

But are they just over-egging the pudding and trying to scare people into voting for it? Well, the DUP's concern goes back to the issue of vote-shredding among the unionist/pro-Union parties and a handful of independent unionist candidates.

LucidTalk's latest poll, published yesterday, predicts that the DUP could return with 33 seats, five down on their 38 tally in the last Assembly.

Okay, that still leaves it ahead of Sinn Fein (predicted 27) and well ahead of the UUP (predicted 18), meaning it would keep the First Minister's job and have the crucial 30-plus seats required for a petition of concern. Yet, a messy transfer battle for final seats could still result in the loss of another three or four seats. Unlikely, but not impossible. A lot will depend on how well the UUP, TUV and Ukip do, and, to a lesser but still significant degree, how well the PUP and unionist independents do.

About three years ago the DUP didn't give much thought to those parties because it reckoned their potential for electoral damage was so limited. Yet in those seats where unionists will be battling each other (in South Belfast, for example, seven varieties of unionism will be fighting for the second unionist seat), almost anything is possible.

We can make an educated case about where transfers may go, but there's still no certainty. Will Ruth Patterson's transfers favour the DUP's Christopher Stalford or to Emma Pengelly? Or will her presence actually cost the DUP the seat?

Indeed, could the intra-unionist dogfight allow Alliance to pick up a second seat in South Belfast, but at the expense of the UUP? The UUP is very confident. It would need to be, because this is the election that really matters to Mike Nesbitt. He starts with 13 MLAs (down from the 16 the party won in 2011) and he wants to show the DUP and the media that the UUP's momentum is building.

Since he was elected leader in 2012 he has said that it would take two election cycles for the UUP to again become "the party of choice for every pro-Union voter in Northern Ireland". This election marks the end of the first cycle and, because the next cycle doesn't begin until 2019, it really is critical that it ends on a very high note for the party.

LucidTalk's prediction of 18 seats - on a 15.6% share of the vote - fits in with the 15% that the UUP averaged during the last election cycle.

A couple of UUP sources have said to me that they think 22 seats is within reach, but that would require it to be pushing towards 18% and recapturing seats it hasn't held since 2003.

Yet perception is everything in politics, and there seems to be a perception that the UUP is on the up.

Nesbitt's primary task is to convince potential voters that a vote for the UUP doesn't put Martin McGuinness into the First Minister's office. And his second task is to convince those same potential voters that the UUP can make a difference for the better - if it increases its Assembly numbers.

He also needs to persuade potential TUV, Ukip, PUP, Conservative and independent unionist voters that the UUP is the only party that can successfully challenge and win seats from the DUP.

While Jim Allister clearly enjoys his role as the main opposition to the DUP and Sinn Fein, he probably knows that the novelty will wear off in the next Assembly, particularly if he is still on his own and the new structures of the official Opposition are occupied by another party.

In other words, coming back as the TUV's sole representative would seriously compromise the party's relevance. So, he needs to find a way of attracting some of the 75,806 voters (12.1%) who backed him in the 2014 European election.

The TUV's constituency posters have the candidate posing with their leader, the unspoken message being that a vote for that candidate is, first and foremost, a vote for Jim himself.

It is also campaigning under the slogan 'Enough Is Enough: 5th May - Your Day Of Opportunity". What isn't so clear, however, is what the "day of opportunity" actually means.

Ironically, I sense that while many unionists respect Allister's ability as a politician, most of them regard him as a one-off and want him as a one-off. And that's actually a huge electoral disadvantage for his candidates.

Ukip was banking on an anti-EU mood among unionists (polls suggest that a majority of unionists will vote to leave on June 23) to boost its profile and appeal during the Assembly election.

But David McNarry and Henry Reilly, who were their two biggest hitters, aren't standing as Ukip candidates (Reilly defected to TUV), the DUP has placed itself in the Leave camp, and the party's 13 candidates are barely known.

In an interview with me about two years ago, McNarry was confident that Ukip could win five Assembly seats and even talked of some sort of pact with the TUV to increase their joint haul. That all seems like pie-in-the sky now.

The PUP, too, has a lot to prove. It won two seats in the 1998 Assembly, yet all it has today are four councillors - out of a total of 462.

One of its best hopes is Dr John Kyle in East Belfast, but apart from that its real influence may be in determining whether final seats go to the UUP or DUP. Again, though, another poor result will damage its claim to relevance, so it needs an MLA.

Meanwhile, the NI Conservatives - who have been here since 1989 - are not winning any seats, although their transfers may prove useful to the UUP and Alliance.

There will be somewhere in the region of 125 unionist/pro-Union candidates and six parties contesting the Assembly election. Each of those parties has something to prove. And that's why it could, in the last three weeks, become pretty brutal.

The main battle, though, will be between the DUP and UUP - in what is the most important showdown between them since the 2003 Assembly election.

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