Wednesday 28 November 2007

Another Flat Earth Society

The Belfast Telegraph reports that MEP Jim Allister, formerly of the DUP, intends to set up a new 'movement' some time soon, to cater for unionists opposed to Sinn Féin in government.

He claims to have established branches of his 'movement' "right across the province", but so far he has held only 'invitation-only' gatherings. One wonders how he knew who to invite.

The new group is a 'movement' rather than a party, as, according to Allister, "there is no imminent election so there is no urgency to having a party". This blog has commented on the election famine during the next 18 months or so, but such a period of inactivity applies only to spectators, not participants. If Allister, or his 'movement', want to stand in any of the elections due in 2009 – local elections, European elections, possibly also Westminster elections – then he needs to start preparing right away. To set up functioning branches, with active members, to attract funding, to prepare policies, manifestos, to select candidates and to publicise them; all this takes time, and 18 months is certainly not a luxury.

The rationale for Mr Allister's 'movement' is a negative one – to try to eject Sinn Féin from the Northern Irish Executive. In order to do this, he would have to achieve the impossible. There are two ways; firstly by winning enough seats at the next Assembly election (due in 2011) to collapse the whole show, and secondly by winning some Westminster seats, and being lucky enough to hold the balance of power in the Westminster parliament after the next Westminster election. In this latter case he could insist on the whole Northern Irish arrangement being re-written as his price to support whichever party wants power most.

It is not necessary to be a genius to see how far-fetched all this is. Neither of the main British parties would agree to such a price. By 2009 Sinn Féin will have been in the Executive and supporting the PSNI for two solid years; the IRA ceasefires and decommissioning will be so far back in time that they are history, and no-one will understand, or share, Mr Allister's backwoods perspective. If there is a Democratic President in the White House, Allister can work out himself which relationship London values most: Washington or him!

As for the 2011 Assembly elections – they are even further away, and the strength of Mr Allister's hatred of Sinn Féin will have to compete with a full term of successful power-sharing. Who by then will wish to collapse the first successful local administration in Northern Ireland's history? And why would they wish to collapse it?

So what can he achieve?

First and foremost, he can split the unionist vote. There may be some constituencies where a split unionist vote will give seats to nationalist candidates, or allow a precarious nationalist to keep his (or her's, in Fermanagh-South Tyrone!). At local level the effect would be strongest, and his impact would decrease the higher up the political food-chain one climbs. Despite his current position as an MEP, it is precisely the European election that he has least chance of disrupting. He will lose his seat, which will go to a 'safe' DUP candidate. Whether Nicholson loses his Euroseat is a question of demographics and turn-out on the day – Allister's 'movement' will not take many of Nicholson's votes.

This blog, of course, being strongly anti-unionist, wishes Mr Allster the best of luck. The more unionist votes he attracts, the easier it will be for nationalist candidates at all levels. In terms of seats, a single unionist party is likely to get more than two separate parties. Three separate and competing parties will split the vote so much that some 'safe' unionist seats will fall into nationalist hands. And, of course, since Allister is an extremist motivated primarily by antipathy to Sinn Féin (and, one suspects, to all nationalists) his 'movement', even if moderately successful, will tarnish the reputation of unionism in Ireland and beyond.

Allister's 'movement' has not yet announced its name. Whether or not he adds to the alphabet soup of past and present xUP names, or goes for a 'modern' name, is impossible to say at this stage. But whatever name he gives it, his movement is doomed to be just another Flat Earth Society.

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