In the midst of the dispute over the flying of the Union flag, we once again hear the old mantra of closer co-operation between unionist parties, in terms of electoral pacts and agreed election candidates, in order to maximise unionist representation.
The old theory is being promoted that, if at a previous election two unionist candidates got 10,000 votes each, then if only one candidate was to run that candidate would get 20,000 votes. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
Electoral pacts and unity candidates are difficult to implement successfully due to a number of factors. One is that you need an ideal person to be a ‘unity’ candidate — one who, from the unionist perspective, can get support across the broad-church unionist electorate, from the TUV/Jim Allister viewpoint to the Basil McCrea/liberal wing of the UUP.
This is not easy and, as we all know from life, it’s very hard to find this sort of candidate — someone who is liked by everybody and hasn’t fallen out with anyone. They’re a rare breed.
To be fair, the unionist parties nearly got it right with Rodney Connor in the 2010 Westminster election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
He was a candidate who had no previous political involvement with either the DUP or UUP and seemed acceptable to all sections of unionist opinion.
Connor was also helped by the fact that elections in the west of the province tend towards being one-political-issue contests and end up being basically sectarian headcounts.
However, even with all of these advantages, Connor still lost, albeit by only four votes, but in the brutal winner-take-all Westminster election format, coming close doesn’t count.
Why did Rodney Connor, a near ideal ‘unionist unity’ candidate lose? At the 2010 Westminster election, Connor polled 21,300 votes and the total unionist poll at the following 2011 Assembly election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone was 22,213.
Therefore, nearly 1,000 unionist votes went ‘missing’ in 2010, when compared with 2011. It is also rare for the total unionist vote to go up between elections (it usually goes down).
The unionist parties should ask the question: who are these ‘missing’ unionist voters? And why didn’t they vote in 2010, when they voted in 2011?
This seems to show that any so-called ‘unity’ candidate, however well-chosen, will always alienate some section of the electorate.
Election pacts and unity candidates also get more difficult to implement, and be successful, as you move towards the east of the province and the urban constituencies around Belfast.
If ‘unity’ candidates don’t work in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, with their easily-identified electorate groupings (ie unionist v nationalist), then they aren’t going to work in constituencies like South or East Belfast, with their rapidly changing demographics, large established Alliance votes and much higher movement of party allegiance at each election (ie people voting for different parties at different polls).
In the context of the wider political scene, some people say electoral pacts between parties are divisive, as pacts and ‘unity’ candidates polarise and drive the electorate back into sectarian camps.
A pact on one side of the Northern Ireland divide tends to result in an equivalent pact on the other side of the divide, the middle-ground gets squeezed and the whole election process can end up mired in contention.
Whether electoral pacts are divisive is open to opinion, but political parties — particularly on the unionist side — should also consider the electoral science of pacts and ‘unity’ candidates.
They are not always the easy solution that many people believe them to be.
Bill White is managing director of Belfast polling and market research firm LucidTalk, polling partners of the Belfast Telegraph