Why, deal or no deal, the DUP and UUP remain polls apart
Arlene Foster may place her ‘X’ beside Tom Elliott’s name in Fermanagh and South Tyrone on June 8, but their parties are as divided as ever, writes Ed Curran
On June 8, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, will enter a polling booth in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to cast her vote in the General Election. On the basis of her statement this week in this newspaper, her party will not field a candidate and she can be expected to vote for Tom Elliott, former leader of the Ulster Unionists, the party from which she resigned in 2003.
Elliott’s party spent much of the past year savaging Foster’s leadership, criticising her role in the RHI scandal and calling for her to stand aside from the office of First Minister, if not resign altogether.
On the face of it, her decision to give him a free run as preferred unionist candidate in the General Election seems remarkably generous, given also that the DUP is the dominant force and that in 2005 Foster and Elliott went head-to-head against one another in the absence of an agreed choice and she beat him comfortably.
It seems all the past political baggage may be forgotten in Fermanagh on June 8. Hatchets will be buried. It will be as if never an ill word was spoken.
Bizarre as it may look to an outsider, tens of thousands of other unionists will follow Arlene Foster’s example. They will cross the great unionist divide, letting bygone be bygone and supporting unionist candidates with whom they do not see eye to eye.
It is hard to find a precedent for such political behaviour in Europe. However, a parallel could be drawn with France this week. There, the conservative and socialist parties are expected to throw their support behind the moderate Emmanuel Macron in the second round of voting to ensure he wins, even though they have little or nothing in common with him.
To the French, at whatever the sacrifice and cost to political principle, keeping the National Front and Marie Le Pen from the presidential palace is the number one priority. To the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists, no matter their differences, keeping nationalism and republicanism at bay is just as important.
In 2017, the quest for electoral pacts again focuses attention of why and how the two main unionist parties remain so at odds with one another. The split cannot be so easily defined today as it was in the past, but chiefly it is categorised by hardline Protestant unionism on one side confronting compromising, increasing secular unionism on the other.
The DUP have clearly the upper hand, as Arlene Foster reminded the Ulster Unionists in her Belfast Telegraph article.
At the Assembly election, the DUP had 225,415 first-preference votes, compared to 103,314 for the Ulster Unionists. The DUP has 28 Stormont MLAs and eight Westminster MPs; the Ulster Unionists have 10 MLAs and two MPs.
Arlene Foster appears to be playing hardball with her new UUP counterpart as regards any inter-party pact. Without some agreement on who stands for unionism in South Belfast, a wider pact looks unlikely, with DUP and UUP candidates facing one another there and in other constituencies.
Foster has launched a pre-emptive strike for a South Belfast DUP candidate. Much as the new Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann may feel aggrieved, Foster has the numbers on her side and history as well. The leafy, liberal suburbs of Malone are politically deceptive. It is in the more-populated Protestant neighbourhoods of South Belfast where elections are won and lost for unionism.
Neither the Rev Martin Smyth, Grand Master of the Orange Order, nor the Rev Robert Bradford, murdered by the IRA, were seen as other than hardline traditional unionists when they were MPs for the constituency from 1974 until 2005.
The Ulster Unionists hold none of the five Stormont MLA seats in South Belfast and waiting in the wings is one of the DUP’s leading voices, Emma Little Pengelly, who lost out narrowly on an MLA seat. Pact or no pact, she would surely be the bookie’s favourite to win most unionist support and possibly oust the sitting SDLP MP, Dr Alasdair McDonnell.
The wider unionist public may well ask if any co-operation can be achieved over the forthcoming election, why can’t it be like that all the time? In the aftermath of a fairly disastrous Assembly election, it seems there is little alternative but for the two main unionist parties to co-operate more, not just for the Westminster election, but also at Stormont.
Arlene Foster says that her party, with most unionist support, should call the political shots in any pact with the UUP. The two parties behave rather like a large supermarket chain competing with a smaller one with different products filling their shelves, ensuring the public continue to shop in one or the other.
Choice and competition are healthy components of democracy and all the more essential in divided Northern Ireland. However, competition is not incompatible with better co-operation and an end to the unpleasant enmity which has marked the relationship between the DUP and the UUP.
Whatever the longing for unionist unity, it is very unlikely to happen unless the leaders of both the DUP and UUP can find more common ground.
The DUP has too many prominent voices within it who retain a capacity for religious zealotry and an ability to cause sectarian offence, which many other unionists find unacceptable. Arlene Foster with her “crocodile” remark fell victim to this tendency.
For its part, the UUP is still counting the cost of losing its way in the past decade. It’s last leader, Mike Nesbitt, fell on his sword, because the electorate was left confused by (or not yet willing to accept) his liberal leadership message. The new leader has a challenge on his hands to build a more appealing, mainstream strategy.
So, what is unionism today? Beyond support for the Union, both Arlene Foster and Robin Swann have quite a bit of explaining to do to the wider community as to what else their respective parties stand for.
They would do well to commission some in-depth research into how unionist voters feel, what precisely motivates a person to vote unionist and why so many are so disaffected by one party or the other. True unionist unity remains an illusion and a distant prospect.
Arlene Foster’s support for Tom Elliott in Fermanagh and South Tyrone will help him return to Westminster, but it cannot mask the differences and paper over the cracks in the unionist edifice.
Simply saying we are the largest party and because of that you should fall into line with us is no answer if the DUP is serious about uniting unionism — not to mention uniting Northern Ireland.
The onus is on the largest party to show if and how it can move with the times. How it can deliver a more accommodating mainstream unionist message, which might appeal to some — if not all — of the 103,314 people who vote Ulster Unionist — or to the many thousands more who do not vote at all.