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?