One of the unknowns of next year's Westminster election is the intentions of Jim Allister's TUV. While Allister himself has stated that he will fight the North Antrim seat, it is generally assumed that his party will not fight aIl 18 – certainly where unionist vote-splitting would ensure or help the election of a nationalist.
But recently Allister gave another very clear signal that one seat his party will fight is Upper Bann. In a speech to the Upper Bann TUV Annual Dinner, he said that:
"I look forward to the Westminster election and the verdict on the betrayers of Traditional Unionism. In politics you expect most from those who know the truth and brag of their steadfastness. That is why one of the men who disappointed me the most is the outgoing MP for Upper Bann. He won his seat by opposing the betrayal of Trimble. Now, he deserves to lose it for operating the very Belfast Agreement system which Trimble bequeathed us. I have to say, with a heavy heart, there was as much honesty and maybe less deceit in the politics of those who spawned the Belfast Agreement than in those who having blasted Trimble then gave us Martin McGuinness as our Joint First Minister." [bold font as in the published version]
The MP who has so disappointed Allister is the DUP's David Simpson, who took Trimble's seat in 2005. However, the electoral arithmetic of Upper Bann is such that, by standing there and taking 40% of the DUP's vote (as the TUV have tended to do), the TUV risks giving the seat back to the hated UUP – or, even worse (by their standards), to Sinn Féin.
In 2005 the DUP, buoyed by the votes of extreme unionists such as those now in the TUV, got 37.6% of the vote. If the TUV shears 40% off that, then the DUP may get only 22.6% - less than Trimble got in 2005 (25.5%) and perilously close to what Sinn Féin got (21%). In 2007, though, when the TUV did not yet exist, David Calvert (now TUV) stood in the Assembly election, getting 3.1% of the vote. The DUP still topped the vote in terms of party share (31.4%), but Sinn Féin had moved up to second place (25.3%).
If the TUV's ability to attract votes exceeds that of Calvert (standing as an independent) in 2007, then the humbling of the DUP may be at the cost of handing a seat that is only 39% nationalist to a Sinn Féin candidate. A result that even Allister would surely not want.
If the UUP (or 'UCUNF') stand, then the unionist vote could be split three ways. The UUP has not ruled out standing, and of course the Conservatives (the other half of UCUNF) have promised to stand in every constituency. One possibility is that, in the share-out of candidacies, the UUP 'allow' the Conservatives to stand for UCUNF in Upper Bann – knowing that the Tories have no support whatsoever there (0.6% in 2007) – in the knowledge that this would reduce the three-way split to an effective two-way split for unionist votes. UUP voters would then have to vote strategically for the DUP to avoid a Sinn Féin victory. However, such a scenario would require several factors that cannot be taken for granted: extreme cynicism within the UUP regarding the Tories, a deliberate 'throwing' of the election in Upper Bann by the UUP, and a realisation amongst UUP voters that they need to vote strategically.
Another possibility is that the TUV will not, in fact, stand in Upper Bann, but will use the fact that the DUP would certainly be beaten – and humiliated – if it did, to extract concessions elsewhere. What his price might be has not yet become clear, but these are very early days in a very long election.