"Reg Empey is not an entirely stupid person. He knows what the net result will be in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast if two Unionists run. It will ensure an abstentionist Sinn Fein MP is returned in Fermanagh and a nationalist is given another four years in the House of Commons from South Belfast."
Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST) is, of course, a majority nationalist constituency, so it is indeed likely that a split unionist vote will ensure that they cannot slip between the nationalist candidates and snatch the seat (like William Thompson in West Tyrone in 1997).
But South Belfast is not yet a majority nationalist constituency. Although its nationalist vote has been steadily increasing over the past few decades, in 2007 its unionist vote (43.5%) still exceeded its nationalist vote (40.0%). In Westminster elections the unionist vote is usually higher than in local or regional elections – in 2005 the combined unionist score was 51.1% against the nationalist score of 41.3%. A single unionist would probably beat a single nationalist, and even two unionists – if one was weak – could still see the seat won by the stronger unionist.
What clearly concerns the DUP is that there is not a 'strong unionist/weak unionist' scenario in sight. They know that their rapid increase from 1998 (13.1%) to 2005 (28.4%) is over. In fact it was already over in 2007 when they scored only 22.4%. Alasdair McDonnell won the seat in 2005 on a vote of 32.3% – and now the DUP are admitting that they cannot beat that.
And yet, though they are admitting that they cannot beat the SDLP, they must know that a single unionist candidate could. But even though they hold neither of the seats (FST or South Belfast) they are refusing to stand down from the elections in both of them. On the contrary, they are trying to use their refusal to stand down as a wedge to split the UCUNF project:
"The UUP is betraying the Unionist community in both those areas by their refusal to reach an agreement with fellow-Unionists in the DUP. Our deal offer still stands: lets divide the two seats between the two parties and let’s work together to ensure Unionism advances."
The DUP are presumably hoping that, in the event that UCUNF refuse to be tempted, the unionist voters will blame UCUNF rather than the DUP for the failure to win a winnable seat. This is a risky strategy, as the voters may instead blame the DUP, especially if UCUNF poll well in South Belfast, and especially if they outpoll the DUP.
Although it is important in its own right, next year's election will be also a warm-up for 2011, when both the Assembly and (unless 'events' upset matters) the district council elections will take place. If the unionist electorate turn against the DUP over its refusal to stand down – and dismiss the DUP's protestations that it offered a deal – 2011 may turn out to be a bad year for the DUP.