While some try to understand whether – or not – the Tories actually promised to stand in every constituency in Northern Ireland next year, the DUP have gone ahead and selected their candidate for the Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency. Unsurprisingly, it is Arlene Foster, Fermanagh Councillor, MLA and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. If she succeeds in getting elected she will equal the record for multiple mandates.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a seat with a slight nationalist majority – 52.9% in 2007 (against 46% for unionism), and 53% in 2005 (the most recent Westminster election). Nonetheless it has been held by unionists for lengthy periods, most notably between 1983 and 2001, as a result of a unionist voting pact – essentially the DUP agreed not to stand, leaving the field open for the UUP. Nationalism, though it had held the seat before when it too fielded a unity candidate, split its votes between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. Only in 2001, sufficiently angered by being 'represented' by a party that patently did not represent them, did the nationalist voters swing behind Sinn Féin in sufficient number to retake the seat (helped by the unwise candidacy of unionist maverick Jim Dixon).
So the seat is close enough to an even balance to make it winnable for the side that fields a single candidate. If both sides field more than one candidate, the seat is likely to remain in Sinn Féin hands.
The SDLP is likely to stand in 2010, as may one or other dissident republican candidate, but the bulk of the nationalist vote will go to Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew.
So the relatively early announcement of Foster's candidacy by the DUP presents a direct challenge to the UUP and the Tories (aka 'UCUNF') who have yet to select their joint candidate. By announcing that the DUP will not stand aside, the party is effectively placing UCUNF in the position of unionist vote-splitters. If UCUNF go ahead and select a candidate for the seat and put real effort into campaigning for that candidate, they will be ensuring that Michelle Gildernew is re-elected. This outcome will contribute to a continued sour relationship amongst the various unionist parties. But if UCUNF do not stand, then they will be making themselves into liars.
The TUV have also added their voices to the debate: "To retake Fermanagh & South Tyrone I believe we need a unifying candidate, unburdened by baggage, who can rise above the party rivalries and command respect among all Unionists. I am therefore calling for a unified commitment among all the Unionist parties to find and support such a candidate. It can be done if petty party jockeying will let it be done. Gildernew or Unionist new, that is the choice!"
But the fact on the ground is that Foster has been formally announced as candidate for the DUP – invoking the spectre of 'unionist vote-splitting', but placing the blame on the UCUNF. It is a high-risk strategy by the DUP, and one that will end in unionist tears unless one of the unionist parties backs down. Jim Allister has clearly stated his support for a 'unity' unionist candidate (and not Foster!), but UCUNF would destroy much of their credibility if they signed up for such a tactic. It seems the only way out for unionism would be for Foster to humiliatingly stand down her candidacy.