In 2009 there will be elections to the European Parliament. Northern Ireland elects three Members (MEPs). And therein lies a problem, because there are four parties in Northern Ireland with a chance of a seat. Four into three just doesn't go – someone must get disappointed. In 2004 it was the SDLP who lost out, seeing John Hume's long-time European seat being snatched by Sinn Féin. Jim Allister comfortably kept Ian Paisley's old seat for the DUP (of which he was then a member), and Jim Nicholson scraped home to retain his seat for the UUP.
In 2009, however, there may be changes. Firstly because Jim Allister is no longer a member of the DUP, and is fast becoming their nemesis. They will do their best to dislodge him from 'their' seat, and he will do his best to retain it. On the basis of the (admittedly very unrepresentative) sample of Dromore, Allister won't win, but may take around a third of the DUP votes.
The second major factor is that unionism's historic majority is coming to an end. From a situation in the 1970s where they routinely got two-thirds of the vote, they have been dropping closer to half, and occasionally even below it. At the same time nationalism has risen above 40% of the vote, and in European elections up to 45% (in 1999). So the natural breakdown of two unionist MEPs and one nationalist can no longer be taken for granted.
Unionists are aware of this; on 19 April, Peter Robinson called for greater cooperation between the DUP and the UUP to reverse the trend of low voter turnout in unionist areas. He said: "We need to be mindful of the electoral strength of republicanism. They are getting stronger because unionist turnout is reducing." Since no elections are planned for 2008, his remarks were seen as a general advance to the UUP, which some even took as a prelude to a merger.
However, an article in the Belfast Telegraph on 23 April made it a bit clearer what is starting to worry unionism:
"Trust Peter Robinson to go to the heart of the problem facing unionism, although he didn't put it quite like this: unless it can maximise its vote, around a single unionist party or a two-party electoral coalition, it has little chance of staying ahead of nationalist representation in future elections.
The European election next year will prove this point. If the SDLP and Fianna Fail strike a deal, to maximise the moderate nationalist vote and win back some of John Hume's following, it may take the UUP seat. That would leave Northern Ireland represented in Europe by two nationalists and the DUP."
"The importance of the European election is that if it were to result in a 2-1 win for nationalism, the old order would be changed fundamentally. Either unionism would respond by much greater DUP-UUP co-operation or it would split into several factions, incapable of making the same impact in Westminster, Stormont or local government."
Unionism is faced with a dilemma. As it approaches parity with nationalism (in 2004 the combined unionist vote was only 48.6%; nationalism was at 42.3%) it needs to cooperate in order to ensure transfers, in order to keep two European seats. But the DUP will get few transfers from the TUV, so must look to the UUP for them. The DUP's biggest fear is that the TUV will take so many of its votes that it will be in fourth place in a race for three seats. A split unionist vote could see two unionist candidates being eliminated before the two nationalist candidates, thus giving the dreaded 2/1 victory to nationalism.
On the other hand, the article in the Belfast Telegraph may just be a promotional piece for Robinson's strategy. By hyping up unionist fears of the increasing strength of nationalism, and by being specific in a way that Robinson could not, the Belfast Telegraph may be trying to help the DUP counter its arch-rivals in the TUV.
This blog does not believe that the DUP really has immediate fears of being outvoted. In our view the Belfast Telegraph article is the opening shot in a campaign similar to that run by unionists before the results of the 2001 Census were released. In that case they exaggerated the Catholic proportion of the population, and quoted extensively from over-optimistic nationalist sources. This then allowed them, when the more reasonable results actually came out, to claim that nationalism had suffered a significant reverse. In the 2009 European election, by hyping the chances of two nationalist seats, and encouraging nationalists to believe that such an outcome is possible, they would then be able (if unionism still retains its two seats) to say that nationalism's hopes have yet again been dashed. If the SDLP and Fianna Fáil do actually fight the campaign together, and win back the seat that Sinn Féin won in 2004, unionism will be ecstatic.
The statistics, and previous vote transfer patterns, show that the likely outcome of the election remains two unionists and one nationalist. So any exaggerated hype to the contrary should be seen as what it is – a two handed gambit by the DUP to win its voters back from the TUV, and to humiliate Sinn Féin.