With every passing day the European Parliament election gets closer. The Electoral Office have just published the timetable , which tells us that the election will be on Thursday 4 June 2009, and that candidates must be nominated by 7 May at the latest.
For Sinn Féin and the 'New Force', the selection is easy – the sitting MEPs Bairbre de Brún and Jim Nicholson will stand again. But for the DUP the issue is a difficult one. Firstly because the MEP elected for the party in 2004 – Jim Allister – deserted them and has become one of their bitterest opponents, and secondly because the DUP simply has no high-profile member who wants to be sent to exile in Strasbourg.
For almost two years Jim Allister has been sniping at the DUP, and for all of that time the DUP has been trying to outwit, outgun or outrun him. But they haven't succeeded. He scared them and embarrassed them at the Dromore by-election in February 2008, and since then there have not been enough other contests for the DUP to either crush him or gauge his real strength. So they are in the awkward position now of having to contest a seat that was theirs, against a former member who has become a nemesis, without any eager candidates of their own!
Allister may have little chance of holding his seat, but the DUP cannot know this, and if they put up a little-known candidate who fails then they will suffer a political humiliation of previously unseen proportions.
In desperation, therefore, the DUP are now flying the kite of a Nigel Dodds candidacy. Of course, like all flown kites, this one is strictly denied – "a DUP spokesman said they could not comment on possible candidates for the European election".
The context for such a 'big beast' to step up to the plate is, of course, the proposals to allow a nomination, rather than a by-election, for a vacant European Parliament seat. The proposal (reported by the BBC, though entirely absent from the web sites of the Electoral Office, Electoral Commission, or the Northern Ireland Office, who retain control of electoral law) would allow Dodds to stand, get elected, and then immediately resign his seat in favour of a non-entity. Such a move would, yet again, show the basic contempt with which the DUP treat the electorate.
Ordinarily, an MP who is elected to the European Parliament must resign his Westminster seat, but this happens after the European election – if he resigns his European seat immediately upon being elected, then presumably the necessity to resign his Westminster seat is void. The Irish News speculated that "if he does stand for Europe, his wife Diane Dodds – who lost her West Belfast assembly seat at the last assembly elections – could be selected to contest his North Belfast constituency in his absence". But if he never actually resigned then this would not be necessary.
A trick of this sort would demonstrate three things to the voters of Northern Ireland:
1. That the DUP is genuinely worried by Jim Allister and his party (the TUV). This is a high-risk admission for a party that considers itself to be the dominant voice of unionism, and dismisses the TUV as a pathetic one-man band,
2. That the DUP had no adequate candidate for the European Parliament other than its deputy leader – an MLA and the Minister of Finance. The clear implication is that any other candidate – another MLA, an ambitious councillor, even a new face, would have been beaten. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the party's belief in the calibre of its own members (but not unique, as the sad history of Thomas Hogg has shown us)
3. That the DUP holds the European Parliament in contempt. To stand for a parliament in the full knowledge that you have no real intention of participating in it, is to tell your voters that you consider that parliament to be irrelevant, or that you are hostile to it. If your voters agree with you (as Sinn Féin's voters do in respect of Westminster) then there is no problem, but if they do not, then you will suffer at the next election. In the case of the DUP this could prove to be a short-term solution to a problem that leads to a longer-term headache.
Other issues that this emergency nomination could highlight include the DUP's increasingly precarious hold on North Belfast. The constituency has been approaching parity between nationalists and unionists for some time, and in the absence of a big name like Dodds there is no guarantee that the DUP would hold it at the next general election (due in 2009 or 2010). Just as importantly, Dodds clearly does not want to go to Strasbourg – he wants to stay in Westminster and, in time, replace Robinson as leader of the DUP. A spell in exile may hobble his career. That he would even consider such a move indicates that he has received some guarantees about his future.
This is a high stakes gamble by the DUP, and one that could back-fire in several different ways. At the very least, it shows the DUP to be weaker than it would like to be seen, and more desperate. Even if they win the seat, these impressions will last. If they lose the seat to Allister, they will suffer a serious and humiliating set-back. If they combat Allister too robustly, and split the unionist vote sufficiently, nationalism might win the third seat, with hugely negative implications for unionism. It is hard to see how the DUP could play this hand without losing something.