Tuesday 13 October 2009

Fermanagh – DUP blinks first?

Has Peter Robinson already blinked first in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone unionist staring contest?

As pointed out only yesterday, the DUP was engaging in brinkwomanship in selecting its candidate so far in advance of the election, and thereby challenging the UUP-Tory vehicle UCUNF to stand down (despite its previous promises not to) or face certain unionist defeat in 2010.

Today the DUP have published a call from Peter Robinson for 'unionist co-operation in Fermanagh and South Tyrone'. In his speech to the DUP’s Blackwater Branch Annual Dinner, Robinson said:

The DUP firmly believes that it is in the best interests of unionism to increase our overall representation in the House of Commons. I also believe that the unionist community want to see their representatives working together to defeat nationalism instead of unnecessarily attacking each other.

The DUP made an offer to the Ulster Unionist Party back in 2005 relating to the two areas in Northern Ireland where a combined unionist effort could defeat nationalism and increase the unionist representation at Westminster. Our desire to deliver unionist representation for the people of Fermanagh & South Tyrone still remains and therefore our offer to the UUP still stands. It is most disappointing that others appear to have dictated terms to the UUP that they will stand candidates in all 18 Constituencies across Northern Ireland but I would hope that Sir Reg Empey will step forward and act in the best interests of the unionist community.

The people of Fermanagh & South Tyrone have been denied representation at Westminster because of an abstentionist republican MP. I do not believe that the Union is in any way enhanced by parties contesting the General Election in every constituency simply to make some political point, particularly if that action increases the chance of returning that abstentionist MP again.

I would hope that comments made previously that agreement could only be found if the DUP unilaterally stood aside in South Belfast and in Fermanagh & South Tyrone do not prejudice the chances of an agreement which can be acceptable to everyone, but particularly to the vast majority of the unionist community who live by the old saying of “united we stand, divided we fall."

The opportunity for agreement is there and I am saying to Sir Reg Empey that the Democratic Unionist Party will not be the stumbling block to agreement within Fermanagh & South Tyrone and in South Belfast. If he is willing to rise above hectoring party politics then he will find me willing to work with him to advance an agenda which can truly strengthen the Union in Northern Ireland and deliver what the vast majority of the unionist community wish to see.

Noticeably lacking from this speech was the usual DUP bravado about being the biggest unionist party, or even the largest in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In fact, the whole speech sounds almost grovelling, and it sounds as if Arlene Foster's candidacy will not make it a far as the election.

However, Robinson is clearly linking the fates of unionist candidacies in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast. He is clearly calling for a one-for-one swap with the UUP. But the UUP – or rather their new friends in the English Tory Party – have already stated clearly that they will stand in all 18 constituencies.

Is Robinson acting the devil – tempting the UUP by showing them all that could be theirs if only they forsake the Tories?

The solution is clear: Empey and the UUP let the Tories abide by their promise and stand in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. They'll be slaughtered – they haven't stood in the constituency since 1996, when they received 113 votes. The UUP, as part of their 'alliance' with the Tories, would not stand, thereby ensuring that the DUP can get the lion's share of the unionist vote, and maybe even win the seat. In return, the DUP stand aside in South Belfast where, despite outpolling the UUP in recent elections, may have more difficulty getting the 'moderate' votes necessary to get elected.

This solution is 'clean' in so far as no-one ends up breaking any promises, but the risk is that the Tories see quite clearly that they are the patsies in an obvious UUP-DUP stitch-up.

Do the UUP, so soon after their not-quite-marriage to the Tories, really want to shaft them so blatantly in order to get back into bed with their ex-partners? It would involve bed-swapping worthy of a soap-opera, and would demonstrate to the Tories that politics in Northern Ireland is still quite adolescent.

For short-term unionist gain in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the UUP could end up sacrificing its long-term relationship with the Tories. Who ever said marriage was easy?


Watcher said...

The Conservatives won't give a toss. The 'every seat in The UK' hyperbole is an aspiration to them I suspect. In any case if The UUP want to keep them sweet they can accept some of their nominations for other seats.

Unionists might well end up fighting each other though - out of habit...

Nordie Northsider said...

Good stuff, as always, Horseman. I seem to remember, from your previous blogs on a council by-election in Fermanagh, and also from relevant articles about the redrawing of council districts, that Fermanagh is greening very rapidly. My take on it is this: if the Unionists stand a single Unity candidate then the Nationalists will get behind their front-runner, Gildernew, almost as if she were a Unity candidate. I think that the Nationalist majority is such that a modest SDLP vote still wouldn't give the seat to Unionism.

Pedro said...

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If this comes to pass my guess is that SF and the SDLP will do a deal allowing respective clear runs in F&ST and SB.

Horseman said...

I wish that were true, Nordie Northsider, but unfortunately the greening of FST has not yet gone as far as, say, West Tyrone or Mid Ulster.

In the last Westminster election (2005) the election in FST was very pure - only 4 candidates, with no 'noise' from independents, Alliance, Greens etc. It was a straight 2 unionists against 2 nationalists, and the good guys won, but only by 53%/47%. If there is a single unionist candidate this time he (or she?) could count on about 45% of the vote (unionists tend to rally behind unity candidates). But the SDLP consistently gets about 14% of the vote, and thus reduces Gildernew's slice from a potential 55% to barely 40% - behind a single unionist.

There is little appetite in the SDLP for voting pacts with Sinn Féin - they know that that would be a quick route to oblivion. It is possible, but only barely, that the nationalist parties also do a FST/South Belfast swap, but it would be quite unprecedented.

How nationalist voters would react if the SDLP and SF did not agree a pact - and then lost both FST and SB - is hard to judge. It could be the nail in the SDLP's coffin before the big election year of 2011.

I would, of course, prefer that nationalism agrees unity candidates where seats are at risk (or where they could be gained), but this would require a closer cooperation between the SDLP and SF than we've seen recently. Surely, though, their tacticians are not so stupid as to let intra-nationalist rivalry gift two extra seats to the unionists.

If they are, then I think the need for a realignment in nationalism becomes even more urgent. Perhaps a disastrous election in 2010 might be the catalyst needed to wake nationalism up.

Dazzler said...

Nationalism needs to fight fire with fire. Simple as. Hopefully Sinn Fein will offer a deal to the SDLP or visa versa. Im sure horseman will keep us up to date with proceedings

Anonymous said...

SDLP have no good reason not to do a deal with SF, though I can't see it myself. They seem to feel too threatened by them, and have always liked to present themselves as the nationalists that Unionists/London/Dublin can deal with.

If they continue this, I'd like to see the electorate punish them, though there seem to be a fair few nationalists who hate SF so much they'll never swing to them the way unionists did to the DUP.

I'm curious to see what the UCUNF will do different to try to capture the Catholic vote, if that is indeed their long term strategy. Getting into bed with the DUP in order to minimise nationlist influence isn't going to win over too many Catholics.

Pedro said...

I can't see how a deal which would give McDonnell a fighting chance of hanging on in SB would consign the SDLP to 'oblivion'.

New times, New approach said...

The SDLP like the old 'Nationalist' party has always been essentially collaborationist. 'Long sucking the hind tit, cold as a witch's and as hard to swallow, makes us fork-tongued on the partition bit'.
Forming pacts with SF would be like turkeys sitting down for full and meaningful discussions with the Christmas butcher. Their days of appeal as the polite resistance to exclusionism (remember 'wouldn't have one about the place') and discrimination are long over and their final card is the fact mentioned on various other occasions in this blog that not all Catholics would (once in a majority) immediately vote for a united country; just as not all nominal Protestants (yourself being a shining example Mr. Yeats) would, as times prosper in the North, be completely averse to taking some pride in their nationality.
Whether this card is an Ace or a deuce only the near future can tell.

Watcher said...

"The SDLP like the old 'Nationalist' party has always been essentially collaborationist."

What does that make SF then?

New times, New approach said...

Look back to 1971. Now consider the current political situation. A bit different, isn't it?
With mutual respect it can even become a win/win game.