In February Jim Allister’s political vehicle, the TUV, took around 20% of the vote (and 40% of the combined TUV and DUP vote) in the by-election in the Dromore area of Banbridge District Council. A fluke, claimed the DUP, but the recent European Parliament election proved that it was not just a fluke. On June 4, the Jim Allister took 13.7% of the vote (and 43% of the combined TUV and DUP vote). These are the only two times the TUV has stood for election – there will be no other elections before the next Westminster election (barring an unexpected by-election).
So the DUP must face the prospect of defending its nine Westminster seats against a party that may take up to 40% of its core (hard-line unionist) vote. While Allister is the public face of the TUV and may have benefited from name recognition, the candidate in Dromore was fairly unknown, indicating that the TUV may not be dependent on Allister’s name on the ballot paper.
If the DUP suffers results similar to those of its two contests with the TUV to date, the outcome may be disastrous for the party. Knowing this, voters who normally vote for smaller parties (such as Alliance) may vote tactically for a UUP candidate, thereby compounding the DUP’s problems.
Looking at the current strengths in the 18 Westminster constituencies, some possible outcomes could include:
Belfast East: Peter Robinson got 49.1% of the vote in 2005, with second-place Reg Empey on 30.1%. If a TUV candidate takes 40% of the DUP’s vote, Robinson may get only 29.5%, and if some of the 12.2% who voted Alliance ‘lend’ their vote to the UUP then Empey could easily take the seat. If anger over the allowances and salaries paid to the Robinsons continues until the election, such tactical voting may be even more likely. Scalping Robinson, the leader of the DUP, would be a coup both for the TUV and the Alliance Party. As an added bonus for the UUP it would finally give them the MP they need in order to take a place around David Cameron’s cabinet table.
Belfast North: A 40% cut in Nigel Dodds vote would bring it to 27.4% – below Gerry Kelly’s 28.6%. The Dodds brand name is now severely compromised, and while the TUV would dearly like to drive its knife deeper into the DUP’s dynastic structure, the fact that the beneficiary would be Sinn Féin may stop many DUP voters from deserting the party. If Alban Maginness stands again for the SDLP he may staunch the loss of SDLP votes to Sinn Féin – his standing has been raised by his European candidacy. So this one would be hard to call, and the TUV may not even stand if the possible outcome is a Sinn Féin victory.
Belfast South: The DUP polled barely more than the UUP last time, and less than the SDLP. A loss of votes to the TUV would ensure that this seat remains in SDLP hands.
Belfast West: It is unlikely that the TUV would bother to stand here.
East Antrim: If the TUV took 40% of the combined hard-line unionist vote, then the DUP could expect a vote of barely 30%. Although this is still higher than the UUP’s 2005 vote (26.6%), it brings the DUP perilously close to disaster. Again, strategic voting by Alliance voters could give this seat to the UUP. If Sammy Wilson does not stand again for Westminster (DUP 'double-jobbers' to step down) then a new and less well known candidate may have great trouble holding the seat.
East Derry: Gregory Campbell, if he still stands, would be in a stronger position, as he was well ahead of the UUP (the second-placed party) in 2005, with an Alliance Party vote too small to act as king-makers.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone: Any TUV involvement in this election would copper-fasten Sinn Féin’s hold on the seat. Since the UCUNF has announced that it will stand in every seat, there is now little chance of an agreed unionist candidate, so this nationalist seat will retain a nationalist MP.
Foyle: Unionism is a minority creed here, so whatever the TUV does it will not affect the outcome.
Lagan Valley: In theory Jeffrey Donaldson is so far ahead of his nearest rival (with 54.7% of the vote against the UUP’s 21.5%) that he is fairly safe.
Mid Ulster: a safe Sinn Féin seat, so a TUV intervention would just splinter the minority unionist vote further. The only reason the TUV might stand here is to humiliate another of the DUP dynasties, the McCreas, in their own back garden.
Newry and Armagh: A safe Sinn Féin seat – the TUV could take 40% of the DUP’s vote without it making any difference. It would put down a marker, though, for the impact it would have on the Assembly and local elections to come in 2011.
North Antrim: The mother of all elections, this would be a real grudge-match in the DUP’s heartland. Here Allister himself will stand, and media attention will be intense. No other party could win so it will be a personal contest between Allister and whoever stands for the DUP. If it is still Paisley senior the DUP will be effectively admitting that Allister would win against any other candidate – a psychological victory for the TUV even before any vote is cast. The outcome of a Paisley senior vs. Allister contest would probably be a pyrrhic victory for Paisley, but against another DUP candidate (Paisley junior?) Allister could win, thereby mortally wounding the DUP.
North Down: A lot depends on whether or not Sylvia Hermon stands again, and for whom. The unionist vote could be split four ways (Hermon, UUP, DUP, TUV) leaving the seat wide open. But if the TUV takes 40% of the DUP’s tally, they would have no chance of topping the poll.
South Antrim: This would be a certain loss to the DUP if the TUV stand. In 2005 the DUP got 38.2% to the UUP’s 29.1%. So a drop of even 25% in the DUP’s vote would give the seat to the UUP, even without tactical voting by Alliance supporters. Again, the scalp of another of the DUP’s dynastic leaders, William McCrea, would please both the TUV and many moderates and nationalists (McCrea is notorious for associating with loyalist murderer Billy Wright).
South Down: Similarly to neighbouring Newry and Armagh, this is a safe nationalist seat (though SDLP in this case). A TUV intervention would simply serve to forewarn the DUP of the losses it could expect in the near future.
Strangford: Although the safest DUP seat, with a 56.5% share of the vote in 2005, the sitting MP is Iris Robinson, disliked by moderates for her anti-gay comments, and by the TUV because, yet again, she is a member of one of the DUP’s ruling dynasties. Nonetheless, she is likely to win.
Upper Bann: The sitting DUP MP, David Simpson, is very vulnerable to a TUV threat. A 40% cut in his vote would bring him well below the UUP, and not far above Sinn Féin. Simpson may choose to stay in the Assembly rather than risk humiliation.
West Tyrone: A safe Sinn Féin seat, with little personal interest for the TUV. They may not bother to stand here.
So, if the TUV is not just a flash in the pan, the Westminster election coming in the next 12 months should see the DUP almost certainly losing three seats, and being vulnerable in three more. If the TUV threat lives up to expectations the DUP may lose the seats of its founder, its leader, and the heads of two of its other dynasties, retaining only three seats; Gregory Campbell (East Derry), Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley), and Iris Robinson (Strangford). That, truly, would be a disaster for the DUP. Many people, and not just hard-line unionists, are hoping that the TUV will live up to its expectations.
The DUP has only a short time to counter the TUV threat – a threat almost to the continued existence of the DUP, and certainly to its dominant position within unionism. We can expect some dramatic moves from the DUP in the months ahead, but whether they help the party or further weaken it, cannot yet be predicted.