Whilst politics in Northern Ireland almost always resembles a primary school playground, for the current European Parliament campaign it seems already to have regressed to the kindergarten.
There are, broadly speaking, three groups competing in the election: unionists, nationalists and 'others'. Some within these groups have seemed more enthusiastic to attack within their group than outside of it.
Unionism has dragged the campaign down as far as it can. The three unionist parties (DUP, UUP-UCUNF, and TUV) have spent more effort in attacking each other than in confronting their ideological foes.
The DUP is fighting a war on two fronts – against their nemesis Jim Allister, who won a seat for them in 2004 and then walked away from them – and against the UUP-Tory hybrid called UCUNF. Despite blustering about 'ensuring a victory for unionism' by topping the poll, what they really want is to take back the seat from Allister, and see off his challenge from the wilder fringes of unionism. But they are afraid to give Allister the oxygen of publicity, and so they rarely, if ever, refer to him – preferring to use the coded language of unionist poll-topping, which in their minds can only be achieved by the DUP.
The UUP has descended quickly to the gutter. From its initial boast of offering a 'vote for change' (despite standing the same drab candidate as they have stood for 20 years!), they have moved directly to intra-unionist cat-fighting by setting up the site www.duppantsonfire.com – a childish site devoted only to attacking their main unionist rivals!
The TUV, of course, exists only to goad the DUP, and spends most of its electoral efforts on them alone. Their manifesto launch contained tirades against the DUP for having entered into the Executive with Sinn Féin:
" … if the DUP were honest their message in this election would be terrorists in government, education in chaos, IRA Army Council intact. What odds. Vote Dodds!"
And the manifesto itself is a litany of complains about the DUP:
"Sadly, the DUP’s neglect of Ulster in Europe continues. Edwin Poots MLA is supposed to represent Northern Ireland on the important Committee of the Regions in Brussels.
In the two years from October 2006 he attended only once! Nigel Dodds MP is supposed to represent Northern Ireland on the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Since 2006 he has attended only once! Is this the abysmal level of non-representation Northern Ireland wants to go back to in the European Parliament? If not, vote Allister 1 – the man interested enough to do the job, and do it well."
"With the two sitting Unionist MEPs defending their seats, it is unfortunate the DUP has seen fit to split the vote."
"The sad truth is that the DUP would rather see Jim Allister out of Europe than Barbara de Brun … "
"… we are wasting millions on pointless cross-border bodies – whose every financial demand has been meekly rubber-stamped by the two DUP Ministers … "
And on, and on, and on …
The Alliance Party has also failed to meet basic standards of political maturity and cooperation. Alliance, which claims to be "a strongly pro-European party" initially declined to advise its voters to transfer to the only other unequivocally pro-EU party – the SDLP. Rather late in the day, it now has "finally established there is more than one pro-EU candidate in this election" – an amazingly grudging statement given the SDLP's history of constructive engagement since 1979! It still stops short of actually advising their voters to transfer to the SDLP, though, leaving observers with the feeling that the Alliance Party would be equally happy with any of the Euro-sceptic unionist candidates as with another 'strongly pro-EU' candidate. It seems that the Alliance Party just cannot throw off their residual unionist tendencies, regardless of how awful the unionist candidates are.
Any party that is prepared to let anti-EU candidates win an election, rather than another party that shares 90% of its principles, clearly has other agendas at work. If, in a European election, the Alliance Party cannot advise its voters to transfer to the only other similar party, this raises questions about their true motivation. Alliance may claim that, as 'liberals' they cannot justify advising voters to transfer to a 'socialist' party – but if the effect is that an additional right-wing unionist anti-EU MEP is elected the effect for Northern Ireland could be strongly negative. Surely, in a spirit of pro-EU cooperation the Alliance Party can leave its petty unionist prejudices out of its decision, and advise its voters to transfer to Alban Maginness. This is, after all, an election for who represents Northern Ireland in the European Parliament – it is not a border poll. So far, the Alliance Party appears to be blind to this rather obvious truth, but there is still time for them to redeem themselves.