New Force must not stray from promise to electorate
If UCUNF is serious about winning over voters to unionism, it can't do deals to allow the DUP a free run, argues Owen Polley
The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists' electoral pact has, from its inception, been predicated on 18 candidates contesting all 18 Northern Ireland constituencies in the next General Election. No ifs, no buts, no maybes.
Yet the UUP remains coy about declaring unambiguously that UCUNF will not stand aside for the DUP in either Fermanagh/South Tyrone or South Belfast.
Tom Elliott MLA is the latest senior figure from within the party to claim that he is open to discussions with Peter Robinson. At the party conference in October leader Sir Reg Empey appeared similarly reluctant to dismiss speculation about 'agreed candidates'.
However, if the UUP is still committed to offering the Northern Irish electorate normal politics and a full participative role at Westminster it must extend its offer to every voter, not merely those who live where there is a comfortable unionist majority.
The DUP's appeal for "unionist unity" might seem bitterly ironic to long-term observers of Northern Ireland's political scene.
However, Ulster Unionists are clearly nervous that their rivals could gain political traction by alleging that UCUNF is 'vote-splitting'. For its part, the UUP's Conservative partner has made it clear that a full slate of candidates is a non-negotiable element of the New Force. It is important the Conservatives and UUP remain consistent. It is not possible to sell a starkly different narrative to voters in North Down than to those in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, for instance.
The strength of UCUNF is that it proposes to extend full participation in the UK Parliament to Northern Ireland. For the first time in generations, the electorate here will have an opportunity to return MPs to the Government benches at the House of Commons.
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It is a profoundly unionist project, promising to extend political entitlements linked with British citizenship to British people to whom it has previously been denied.
Any suggestion that those entitlements could be withheld from sections of the community simply because an area is in the political balance will undermine the power of the New Force's message.
Voters should decide who represents them best and to deny them the fullest choice not only has the unpleasant whiff of a sectarian headcount, it also curtails democracy.
Why should two parties, concocting a back room deal, be able to restrict the political options available to the electorate? The public is quite capable of unravelling the alternatives available to them and interpreting the connotations of backing one candidate rather than another.
In no other part of the United Kingdom would a major, national party consider standing aside in order to benefit its rivals. The Conservatives and UUP say they wish to normalise politics here and part of that process involves campaigning on substantive issues, rather than contracting arrangements with opponents.
Making Northern Ireland more exceptional, rather than less, is not a viable strategy to underpin the Union.
The stark truth is that agreed unionist candidates for South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone would not, in any case, guarantee success in either constituency.
Certainly a unionist pact, struck between two parties which have major differences in policy, would harden nationalist attitudes in the two areas. Unavoidably, the message would be any unionist is better than any nationalist.
Conceivably, Sinn Fein and the SDLP could reach their own understanding. And ultimately, it's difficult to see how agreed candidates could do anything other than contribute to the overall sum of sectarian bitterness in this country.
If the Tories and UUP are serious about winning over new voters to the unionist cause they cannot entertain standing down a candidate in order to give the DUP a free run.
The New Force should concentrate on explaining its principles to the voting public. It is an arrangement built for Westminster and in the run-up to a general election its arguments should be at their most compelling.
If its supposed proponents are distracted by engaging in coquettish political dances with the DUP, there is real danger that the message will be undermined and its power will be diluted.
The Conservatives and UUP are offering everyone in Northern Ireland the opportunity to participate fully in national politics.
It is an honourable aim and one which both member parties should be proud to advocate.