Now that the UUP has picked 17 candidates for Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats, the spotlight will turn on the Conservatives who, according to the agreement between the two parties, will also propose candidates for the seats, before a joint committee settles on a final single UCUNF candidate per seat.
Because of the Cameron effect in England (now slightly waning), there is a belief that the Tories are a powerful force – at least as much a part of UCUNF as the UUP.
But the reality is that they aren’t – not in Northern Ireland, at any rate. The Tories are largely an English party, and have little support in Northern Ireland, despite the publicity that their dalliance with the UUP has given them. The constant references to the Tories in the British media have simply disguised the fact that in Northern Ireland they are largely non-existent.
The Tory party has barely 250 active members or supporters in Northern Ireland – almost all in the Greater Belfast area (Belfast, South and East Antrim, North Down, Lagan Valley and Strangford). In the 2007 Assembly elections the Tories polled only 3,457 votes, standing only in Belfast, East Antrim, Lagan Valley, North Down, South Antrim, South Down, Strangford and Upper Bann. The Tories Northern Ireland web site is not even updated any more.
On the other hand, in 2007 the UUP polled 103,145 votes and stood in all constituencies.
So the Tories are supposed to draw 18 proposed candidates from a tiny pool, and to promote them with almost no activists. This is nigh-on impossible. The Tories simply do not have people with either the interest, ability or political experience to mount a serious campaign in Northern Ireland.
Hence the attempts by the Tories to attract ‘celebrity’ candidates – here an ex-Alliance party turncoat, there a Top Gear producer, here a Catholic, there a female Catholic – and so on. But none of them will have a party machine – the feet on the street that will be necessary. Ultimately the footwork, the door-to-door campaigning, will be left to the UUP. And the UUP members will not do it if they feel that the Tory candidates have been imposed on them. If a locally popular UUP member is passed over for a Tory celebrity candidate the quality of the campaigning will suffer.
The Tories know this. The UUP knows this. The Tories need the UUP link-up in order to pretend to be a ‘UK-wide’ party, and the UUP needs the Tory link-up to save it from near-death. But ultimately in Northern Ireland the UUP is a real party while the Tories are a small group of middle-class people who fantasise about living in the English Home Counties.
So when the joint committee comes together to select the UCUNF candidates, although lip-service must be paid to the Tory link, the lion’s share of the candidacies must go to UUP candidates – they represent, after all, at least 95% of the combined UCUNF vote. A 50/50 split will lead to a UCUNF disaster – to the detriment of both parties. So the outcome will be that the Tories will get a run in several hopeless constituencies, and North Down. Where there is simply no Tory presence on the ground – i.e. everywhere west of the Bann – the UUP candidate will get the UCUNF candidacy – though the proposal of a total unknown in East Derry allows the UUP to ‘cede’ this candidacy to the Tories without offending anyone.
The Tories will put all of their publicity campaign into North Down – the nearest Northern Ireland has to a ‘Tory’ constituency, and will use this to distract attention from their absence elsewhere. But even in North Down the Tories got only 864 votes in 2007 (2.8% of the total), and their candidate, Ian Parsley, had a tiny personal vote in the 2005 local elections. The Tories are trying their best to talk up his chances, but if Sylvia Hermon stands as an independent she could sink the whole UCUNF project without trace.