Unionist pacts, accommodations, alliances, understandings. It wouldn’t be a proper election without such calls, followed by the backlash, would it? But will Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s love-bombing of Doug Beattie and Jim Allister work?
Self-evidently, transfers matter. Some 72 of the 90 MLAs required them at the last Assembly election to get over the line. Just six DUP MLAs and no other unionists were elected on the first count. But whose votes got the other 33 unionists elected?
Dr Robert Barry’s analysis of 2017 Assembly election transfers tells us that 166,134 votes were transferred, 20% of the total poll of 812,783.
In one-quarter of cases, it is simply not possible to identify definitively which party’s vote transferred. Several candidates were eliminated, or elected, at the same stage, so we cannot be sure whose discarded, or surplus, votes benefitted others.
However, Dr Barry does identify the main recipients of transfers as the DUP (26% of those 166,000-plus shifting votes) and the UUP (23%).
The unionist parties are more transfer-friendly, or, more negatively, needy, than “themselves alone” in Sinn Fein. Republicans only attracted 10% of transfers, not that many were needed.
Understandably, many unionist transfers were from candidate to candidate in the same party. One-third of DUP transfers were intra-party in this way, with one-quarter arriving from the UUP.
Almost one-quarter of the UUP’s transfers came from other UUP candidates. These fractions and percentages might seem low, but, to repeat, in many cases we cannot identify the transfer source.
Some in the DUP get frustrated at UUP antipathy towards unionism’s largest party. One-in-three DUP members says they “like”, or “strongly like”, the UUP. Less than one-in-five reciprocates from the UUP in their view of the DUP. It’s a strange form of unionist unity.
More unionist voters say they like pacts than oppose them. Party members are more hostile. Only 3% of UUP members say they want pacts for Assembly elections, although 41% state such tie-ups are fine “when it suits us”. In Doug Beattie’s view, though, it doesn’t suit. Pacts for an Assembly election will never happen.
No one’s fool and leading a party that does its electoral homework, Donaldson’s plea was really to get UUP voters to transfer lower preferences to the DUP.
At the last Assembly battle, DUP candidates could hardly lick their lips whenever a UUP candidate was eliminated, thinking “nice bundle coming my way”. Only just over half of those UUP votes transferred, contributing to DUP losses such as that in North Belfast, where Nelson McCausland forfeited his Assembly berth.
UUP voters are also more likely to stray. It might surprise that the largest supplier of transfers to SDLP candidates at the 2017 Assembly contest was the UUP, not Sinn Fein, or Alliance. And SDLP transfers to the UUP helped Rosemary Barton to a seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Maybe Mike Nesbitt’s “Vote Mike, Get Colum (Eastwood)” pleas found more traction than was realised at the time.
Unionism’s Assembly election problems are not addressed simply by greater voter discipline. There is under-representation compared to the size of total unionist first-preference votes.
In the Mid Ulster, Newry & Armagh, South Belfast and West Tyrone constituencies, combined first-preference votes for unionist parties exceeded 30%, yet unionism in each is represented only by a solitary DUP MLA of the five candidates returned.
The UUP was left stranded in each of those constituencies with a sizeable vote, but no representation.
Good candidates, like Danny Kennedy and Sandra Overend, failed to get home. But increased transfers between unionists will not necessarily solve this.
A 30% unionist vote cannot give you 1.5 seats. It’s either one or two and, based on last time, probably one.
Having three unionist parties, each polling respectably, is, of course, wasteful in splitting the vote. The existence of each organisation is a derivative of history more than a product of contemporary policy differences. Current divisions are of noise and tactics on defeating the Protocol, but not much else.
Jim Allister has urged other unionist parties not to nominate a Deputy First Minister in the (probable) event of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party.
Given the (accurate) messages from that quarter for years that the DFM post has equal value, that might seem odd, although TUV opposition to (supposedly) mandatory coalition is long-standing.
A way forward for unionist parties would be to move into opposition at Stormont, given that a Sinn Fein First Ministership would, apparently, be so intolerable. But there seems little appetite for such a move and institutional collapse may be more probable unless Doug Beattie plays DFM.
Unionist parties have far more that unites than divides them. But there is about as much chance of unity as there is of Linfield and Glentoran combining forces — and you cannot quite see Linoran or Glenfield emerging anytime soon.
Pacts are of limited use these days. Understandably deployed again at the last Westminster contest, they worked for neither the DUP’s Nigel Dodds in North Belfast, nor Tom Elliott in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. For Assembly elections, the most that can be urged is to vote unionist down the ticket.
It’s not a pact that Donaldson wants, but unionist voters to hunt in a single-bloc pack. Rivalries die hard, though.
The prognosis for unionist parties is not good: separate existences and election fights to keep their bases happy, but in ever-diminishing electoral and political worlds.
** Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on the DUP and UUP