The DUP has tried repeatedly to get the UUP to enter some sort of electoral pact, with increasingly obvious offers of quid-pro-quo deals. Apart from party leader Peter Robinson, the principal proponents of 'unionist unity' in the DUP have been Nigel Alexander Dodds, who knows that his seat is threatened, and Arlene Foster, who knows that she will never become an MP unless she is unopposed by another unionist. Recently, though, Robin Newton and Wallace Browne have also added their voices to the chorus, despite representing a constituency (East Belfast) with no particular reason to need unionist unity.
The UUP ignored or derided the DUP calls during much of 2009, apart from the odd solo-run by Tom Elliott (for the same reasons as Arlene Foster). Their non-merger with the English Tory party seemed to give them delusions of importance – almost as if they felt that they, with the Tories, now were the 'united unionist' party. The only problem with this was that the Tories had virtually no members, supporters or voters in Northern Ireland. Their role was to be the UUP's banker – as a source of additional votes they were likely to be a bit of a disappointment.
It seems that the UUP eventually came to realise this too, because in their first tranche of joint UUP-Tory candidates (to stand under the UCUNF label) the three constituencies where unionist unity could have a decisive impact were missing. Clearly there were still dealings going on behind the scenes.
In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the secret attempts to get Norman Baxter to stand as a 'unionist unity' candidate failed, Arlene Foster, the selected DUP candidate, recently said:
"There is a clear message coming from grassroots communities across Northern Ireland that unionism needs a co-ordinated and strategic approach. The overwhelming desire is for a much greater degree of cooperation between unionist Parties.This is a clear plea for an electoral pact in her constituency, and taken together with both Tom Elliott's earlier support for a pact, and UCUNF's inability to name its selected candidate for the constituency, the only conclusion must be that Fermanagh and South Tyrone will, in fact, see a single 'agreed' unionist candidate in the Westminster election.
In Fermanagh & South Tyrone we know the effect of a fractured unionist vote and what the potential of a united unionism could deliver. There is the prize of representation at Westminster and greater unionist representation at Stormont but we should be aware what the effect of a divided unionism facing a de facto united republican opposition at Stormont would be. "
Whether this will matter is open to question. Liam Clarke, writing in Tuesday's News Letter is of the opinion that "unionist unity can't unseat Sinn Fein". He said:
"In Fermanagh and South Tyrone, the facts of life are that there is a nationalist majority and Sinn Fein polls well. Fermanagh and South Tyrone's population was 55.6 per cent Catholic and 43.1 per cent Protestant in the 2001 census. In 2007, unionist candidates polled 46 per cent while Sinn Fein and the SDLP got 50 per cent between them. Sinn Fein alone scored 36 per cent and took the seat.
There are rumours that the SDLP intends to follow the UUP's lead in fielding a former journalist in the constituency. Running for the SDLP, he would need a miracle to unseat Sinn Fein. That can only be done by a candidate who could attract nearly all the unionist votes as well as a considerable number of nationalists. Someone running as a united unionist couldn't do that and would almost certainly lose.
That is why Norman Baxter, the detective who investigated the Omagh bombing, shied away from standing as a united unionist. Baxter is popular across the community through his work with victims. Friends say he knows that only a candidate who appeals across the community can unseat Gildernew.
Fielding a credible cross community candidate is the only way to return a real MP to Westminster."
Clarke's lack of confidence in the ability of a single unionist (drawing on the 46% of the constituency's electorate who voted unionist in 2007) to beat Sinn Féin, who polled 'only' 36.2%, is odd. Is he aware of significant portions of the unionist electorate who would not vote for a unity candidate? Or does he believe that the SDLP vote will collapse spectacularly in such a scenario?
If the SDLP stand a 'celebrity candidate', as Clarke hints, it would be a blow to their long-standing candidate Tommy Gallagher, and may lose them the votes of his friends and supporters. But whether these votes would go to Sinn Féin is less certain.
In any event, it is certain that midnight oil is being burned in the campaign headquarters of the unionist parties. Some form of unionist unity will undoubtedly emerge – in Fermanagh and South Tyrone at least. The agreed candidate will be neither Elliott nor Foster, and must be someone who could attract votes across the unionist spectrum and maybe from non-unionists too. This blog is impatient to see who this wonder-candidate will be, but suspects that the chosen person will lean towards the UUP, and the quid-pro-quo will be a weak UCUNF candidate in North Belfast, who will pose no real threat to Nigel Dodds. Step forward Fred Cobain, who has previously already proved his lack of popularity.
South Belfast is the last missing 'swing' seat. Although the unionists would like to take it back, their dislike of Alasdair McDonnell is less than their hatred of Sinn Féin's Michele Gildernew. The seat also still has a small unionist plurality, so the battle should be easier if they can find a compromise candidate. The DUP and UUP are close in size in the constituency, and if the TUV take some DUP votes the UUP would be bigger. There is also a significant Alliance Party vote which would tend more towards UCUNF than the DUP – though of course it might equally tend towards McDonnell.
The stakes are high and the risks are high too. No pact probably means no gains from nationalism – and worse, it could mean the loss by unionism of North Belfast or even Upper Bann – or both! There will be a lot more midnight oil burnt between now and the closure of nominations for this election.