One of the things that has become clear in the whole long drawn out saga of the UCUNF nominations is that, behind the bluster, the Tories had nobody to contribute. They were bluffing, in the hope that the hype would attract new members of a sufficient calibre that they could, by May 6, look like a credible force in Northern Ireland. But it seems that that bluff has not worked, except in the case of the Alliance turncoat Ian Parsley.
The revelation yesterday that, of the 17 candidates so far approved by the tortuous UCUNF selection procedure, only two are from the Tory side of the partnership is indicative of the Tory weakness in Northern Ireland. They have, at best, between 250 and 350 members, and only one of these was considered electable (apart from the opportunistic Parsley, who only became aware of his Tory yearnings after standing for the Alliance Party in the 2009 European Parliament election!).
And the other Tory is not exactly a big name either – Irwin Armstrong. A man who has apparently never actually stood for election before, and has taken no noticeable part in politics until 2009 (when he was 58 years old! A hobby for his retirement perhaps?) A successful businessman, however, he is precisely what the Tories would like to attract. But if they are expecting his grateful employees to vote for him, well, they may be over-optimistic – his micro-business employs only his own family members. On a related note, could the Elizabeth Armstrong, also from Ballymena, who stood for the Tories in North Antrim in the 1996 Forum election be a family member?
So, out of the 18 seats only South Antrim is left to be decided by UCUNF. But the rumour there is that the Tories have a weak candidate and the only issue is the unacceptability of the UUP’s offering, the bigoted Adrian Watson.
The great Tory invasion of Northern Ireland, that was supposed to bring new and improved candidates, has flopped so far. Two candidates, neither of whom could be called popular, standing in seats that they have little chance of winning (unless Sylvia Hermon unexpectedly withdraws in North Down). David Cameron and his Northern Ireland Spokesman Owen Paterson must be wondering why they bothered. All they’re going to get is a big bill from the UUP for the cost of their candidates campaigns, most of which will fail.
One good thing that has come out of the latest round of UCUNF nominations is confirmation that the mooted electoral pacts to try to recapture Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast are dead. Unless the DUP stand down – which would be a humiliation for them (and may actually be counter to their real strategy) – FST should re-elect Michelle Gildernew, and South Belfast will be quite open.
However, despite the absence of any formal pact, there remains a suspicion that the UCUNF has not actually proposed strong candidates in constituencies where there is a risk, even a remote one, that the sitting unionist MP might be ousted by Sinn Féin or the TUV. In North Antrim UCUNF has selected the unknown Irwin Armstrong – hardly a challenge to the DUP, whose main concern is Jim Allister. In North Belfast UCUNF has selected the serial loser Fred Cobain who has already proved his inability to eat into Nigel Dodds weak majority, and thus hand the seat to Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly. In East Derry UCUNF has proposed an ultra-lightweight – Lesley Macauley – who will take few votes away from the DUP’s Gregory Campbell. In Upper Bann – a seat being eyed up hungrily by Sinn Féin – the DUP’s David Simpson will face only a celebrity candidate from UCUNF. While a Freddy Mercury impersonator may make for good media, his popularity amongst the voters may be somewhat less – he has, like so many of UCUNF’s other candidates, never actually bothered to get his hands dirty in local or regional politics before now. He, like others, thinks he can simply bypass the grunt-work and go straight to glory in Westminster. Local voters (and party activists) may disagree.
If, on May 7, Northern Ireland wakes up to the news that there are no UCUNF MPs – and certainly no Tory MPs from Northern Ireland – this will probably kill the Tory interest in Northern Ireland for years, if not for ever. If after a year or more of media campaigning and hype they turn out to have never really had any good people in Northern Ireland, how many could they expect to have following a failure and a dimming of interest from Conservative Central Office?