Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Huge damage already done to UUP’s General Election chances

Steve Aiken
Steve Aiken
Gavin Robinson
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

While the parties fall over themselves to say that what's happening now - and will happen later in other constituencies - doesn't constitute formal electoral pacts, it is clear that 'understandings' of substance and significance have been reached within both unionism and nationalism.

It means that South and North Belfast, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, North Down and Foyle are all in play in a way they weren't just 24 hours ago.

And while I think the odds continue to favour the DUP in East Belfast, the announcement of Naomi Long's candidacy, the withdrawal of the SDLP (and probably Sinn Fein), and some unease in sections of small-u unionism at alleged threats to UUP personnel in North Belfast, could mean that Gavin Robinson's expected victory isn't as straightforward as he might have hoped.

But this isn't just about Remain versus Leave, no matter how much the SDLP and Sinn Fein push that line.

The SDLP has to prove it has relevance and winning seats is a key part of that process. Regaining two MPs (South Belfast and Foyle) would be an enormous fillip for the party after the setbacks of 2017 and would set the party up nicely for the next Assembly election (assuming there ever is one again).

For Sinn Fein it's primarily about levelling with, or nudging ahead of the DUP in both seats and votes.

At the moment the DUP has 10 to SF's 7; but if Dodds and Pengelly were to lose and SF took North Belfast and held Foyle it puts them at 8 each. Unexpected further losses for the DUP (both South Antrim and East Belfast, maybe even Upper Bann, are potential problems) would put SF ahead.

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And that would be an enormous political and psychological blow for the DUP (and wider unionism) - even greater than the 2017 election which deprived unionism of its overall majority in the Assembly.

There are, of course, no certainties with elections - and anything can happen in the next five weeks - but for the SDLP and SF an electoral 'understanding' on the back of Remain versus Leave could deliver very rich rewards for both of them.

Alliance has said that it won't be part of any formal pact or 'understanding' and that makes sense. It needs to test the durability of its impressive and mostly unpredicted 'surge' in the European and council elections a few months ago and the most obvious way of doing that is to present itself as the only genuine 'other' alternative in every seat. Its chances of winning any seat don't, on the surface, appear to be high.

That said, I wouldn't completely dismiss Long's chances in East Belfast and it is likely that some small-u unionists might shift towards the party and keep up its percentage overall.

The DUP and UUP have an 'understanding' in North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone, but could now look to reaching a broader one embracing South and East Belfast and North Down. The problem is that there seems nothing bankable for the UUP from any arrangement, meaning that it could really struggle for relevance, seats and votes.

The party has been talking up its chances in South Antrim, where former MP Danny Kinahan is challenging the DUP's Paul Girvan.

But I suspect those chances may have been damaged by the party's debacle over North Belfast and Steve Aiken's U-turn on his 18-seat policy. Yet Aiken does have a fair point. From his perspective - indeed from the perspective of many unionists - the DUP has been responsible for a series of dogs' dinners since March 2017.

It has been betrayed by two Prime Ministers; abandoned by every single member of the ERG 'Spartans' in the Conservative parliamentary party; lumbered with a deal that threatens to alter the constitutional dynamics between Northern Ireland and Great Britain; proved unable to prevent the most liberal abortion regulations in the UK; failed to reboot the Assembly; saw the loss of an overall unionist majority in the Assembly under its watch; and has seen unionism rattled in a way that hasn't happened since 1985.

But when the UUP says it wants to offer an alternative to DUP failures, by contesting all 18 seats, all hell breaks loose and it is the UUP which is forced to back down.

And in backing down (and while the alleged threats against UUP personnel in North Belfast are abhorrent, it was clear from day one that it would be backing down irrespective) Aiken has done considerable damage to his own standing and his party's chances.

With just over five weeks to go, two things are certain.

This election is now much more interesting and potentially significant than looked likely a few days ago.

And, more worryingly, it is seemingly pre-determined to be the most unpleasant, and politically brutal, campaign that Northern Ireland has seen since the 1980s.

Belfast Telegraph


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