Big Heid Coont ’11: why the UUP is banjaxed

They aren’t the only ones in this situation, of course. We may begin by noting, parenthetically, that the TUV is also banjaxed.

Yes, Jim Allister and his merry band continue to disappoint. From Jim’s 66,000 votes at the Euro election two years ago, to the 26,000 the TUV polled in last year’s Westminster election, to the 16,000 polled for Stormont last week, this looks very much like diminishing returns having set in. True, Jim is in the Assembly (returned under quota on the last count in North Antrim), but with an Assembly party of one, plus a mere six councillors to back him up… well, one gets a profound sense of Bob McCartney redux. No wonder Walter Millar was moved to publicly speculate on whether the TUV even had a future; and we suspect Sunny Jim will shortly be having a painful interview with the boys who fund the TUV, and who will at some point be expecting some bang for their buck.

More on this from Turgon, but we may note in the meantime that there is in fact quite a large constituency of hardline unionists out there, particularly west of the Bann. But they aren’t supporting the TUV, so who might they be supporting?

An’ sae Ah gie yis Tractor Tam:

We have in the past noticed that border unionism is a very different beast indeed from its greater Belfast counterpart, and nowhere more so than in Fermanagh, which is like a whole wee country by itself. Certainly, about this time some urban UUP types will be scratching their heads at a party leader who resembles nothing so much as Harry West stepping out of a time-travelling DeLorean.

But first, let us consider just what a shocker this election has been for what was our ruling party for fifty years. Taking the Assembly first, a decline from eighteen seats to sixteen doesn’t look great, especially as that will probably cost the party one of its two ministries. But that scoreline is deceptively flattering in a couple of ways. One is the two gains the party largely fluked, with a very narrow win for Big Ross Hussey in West Tyrone, and a second seat in Strangford achieved by boundary changes that disadvantaged the DUP coupled with the continued underperformance of Strangford’s nationalist vote. But set that against the party’s losses: chief whip Fred Cobain gone in North Belfast, the party’s second seat gone in what should be the heartland of North Down, a seat lost to Sinn Féin in East Antrim, and then the horrible self-inflicted wound in East Derry, where the constituency association deselected popular sitting MLA David McClarty, who then went on to win the seat as an independent, polling more votes than the two official UUP candidates combined.

Moreover, there’s little comfort in the detail. Only three candidates (leader Tom Elliott, minister Danny Kennedy and wannabe leader Basil McCrea) elected on the first count. A whole wheen of candidates scraping in on very late counts, including people like Roy Beggs, health minister Michael McGimpsey, David McNarry and Leslie Cree who should not by any stretch of the imagination be vulnerable. Two seats out of 24 in Belfast, and both of those were a stretch. Only two constituencies (Strangford and Upper Bann, and those two only barely) where the party could take a second seat. And nowhere – literally no constituency – where the UUP beat the DUP on first preferences. Below 10% in East Belfast; only just above it in North Down. This is a party with no margin for further slippage.

There’s a political point here and a sociological-geographical point. Firstly, it’s important to get rid of the preconception that the UUP is the moderate party and the DUP the hardline party. That may have been true a decade ago; today, in terms at least of the dominant factions in both parties, it’s the other way round. And in fact border unionism has never been remotely liberal – just ask yourself who exactly was voting for Harry West, Willie Ross and Enoch Powell all those years. During the election coverage, Jeffrey Donaldson (who knows a thing or two about the UUP) suggested that Tom had positioned his party as TUV Lite; Brian Feeney rather more acidly commented that the main difference between Elliott and Allister was that Sunny Jim was a much more urbane and sophisticated politician. Ouch.

There’s a certain cosmic inevitability to all this, and volumes could be written about the decline and fall of the once mighty UUP. (Or, if a publisher is reading this, at least a comic novel in Colin Bateman stylee.) There is certainly a story to be told about Bob McCartney, from his initial Westminster campaign backed by a motley coalition of unreconstructed Stalinists, loyalist paramilitaries and gay rights activists, right up to his entire breakaway party falling out with him and his quixotic attempt to simultaneously win Assembly seats in six constituencies so that he, Bob, could then wield six votes without having to bother with inconvenient party colleagues.

There’s a story to be told about the Baby Barristers, and how they conspired to bring down Jim Molyneaux and place David Trimble in the leadership, only to very quickly become completely browned off with Trimble, conspire at great length against him, then decamp en masse to the DUP. There’s a story to be told about Jeffrey Donaldson’s whole series of abortive putsches, where he made Trimble’s life impossible but failed to muster enough support to take over himself. And there’s a story to be told about Reg Empey’s harebrained schemes, culminating in the UCUNF debacle.

But to cut a long story short, the departure of the ex-Vanguard leadership around Trimble and Empey exposes the cultural gap between the UUP’s different sectors, mainly along the rural versus urban/suburban axis. Michael has some thoughts on this, but I think Professor Billy sums it up well:

They hiv nat so much fallen betwain’ twa stools as walked in a pair o’ them an’ then tread them all o’er the carpet. On the yin hawn, ye hiv lovely Basil wi’ his hair an’ his wee friends, scootin’ aroun’ the metrapolis like a wee smart car wi’ jazz oan the Aye Pod. On the o’er ye hiv Tam settin’ the muck spreader til full blast oan the back o’ his Massey, an’ slippin’ “The Best of Corbet Accordian Band” intil his 8 track. Ye cannae be the TUV, DUP, Alliance an’ Conservatives all at the same time, Ah think, in fact it is a miracle anybudy votes fur yis at all.

I couldn’t put it better myself. The basic point is that, since it lost its dominant position in unionism a decade ago, the UUP collectively has not known what to be at. And so it’s devolved into its constituent parts. You see, the UUP of old was not so much a big tent as an entire campsite, and the only thing that could keep disparate figures such as John Carson, Willie Ross, Harold McCusker and Enoch Powell (not to mention such prodigal figures as Bill Craig and Jim Kilfedder) in the same party was the very fact of it being a big party that could accommodate such a tangle of contradictions.

But this scattered nature has meant the UUP has been extremely vulnerable to having bits of its base cannibalised. Over the past decade, much of its traditional Middle Ulster electorate, and a large proportion of its actual cadre, has defected to the DUP. The fur coat brigade has gone over almost in its entirety to Alliance. It’s still shaking loose bits and pieces. In last week’s elections there was a very large vote in Kilkeel for UKIP councillor Henry Reilly, who used to be in the UUP and has taken his voters with him almost wholesale. And it’s said that David McClarty had a team of forty volunteers canvassing Coleraine, which is damn impressive when you consider that many UUP councillors canvass single-handed, and some don’t appear to know what a canvass is.

The UUP electorate these days boils down to three elements: rural Orangemen who like the cut of Tom Elliott’s jib; councillors who for whatever reason won’t join the DUP or Alliance (and who have personal followings based on them being useful public representatives); and elderly folk who think they’re still voting for Lord Brookeborough. The party still has a large membership, and some semblance of organisation in most areas, but this isn’t a great foundation to be building on.[1]

And here we come to realise that the Tom Elliott issue is not merely an issue of Tom’s leadership qualities. Tom actually ticks many UUP boxes – service in the UDR, past County Grand Master of the Orange Order in Fermanagh, member of the Royal Black Preceptory – and that goes down mighty well with Tom’s own voters in the Dreary Steeples. But here’s the thing. The big votes last week for Tom or indeed Danny Kennedy availed them little, as neither of them were in a position to bring in a running mate in their border constituencies. Much as the culchies may resent this, greater Belfast is where most unionist voters are, and there needs to be some appeal to the urbanites. Basil McCrea at least grasps the problem, even if he doesn’t have a convincing solution.

The road block is the nature of the UUP itself. A very large proportion of its membership – those people who made Tom leader – resides in Tyrone or Fermanagh. So do many of its councillors, which has been confirmed by the local government elections. Of the party’s current 99 councillors, a full 27 are based in the three western counties, with the border districts of Armagh and Newry & Mourne accounting for a further six and three respectively. In only three of the 26 districts did the UUP outpoll the DUP – Fermanagh, Armagh and Banbridge. The centre of gravity is firmly shifting to the border.

Then look at those results in the metropolis. As late as 2001 the UUP was the biggest party in Belfast City Hall. It is now down to from seven to three councillors out of 51. This puts it equal in representation with the PUP and UPRG, the loyalist micro-parties which represent the interests of Uncle Andy and Big Mervyn. It came in fifth place in the popular vote with 8.6%. Radiating out, the party is now down to three seats in Castlereagh and three in North Down. Not only is it continuing to leak support to the DUP, but a resurgent Alliance Party has been mauling it in what remains of the liberal unionist electorate. There’s very little of an urban base to rebuild from.

And the cluelessness continues with the decision to form a mini-UUUC on Castlereagh council, a decision rightly lambasted in today’s News Letter by Alex Kane and Basil McCrea, on the not unreasonable grounds that it a) gets the backs up of those voters who’ve been drifting from the UUP to Alliance, and b) turns the UUP locally into an appendage of the DUP, which is great for the DUP but not so great for those punters in Castlereagh who specifically chose to vote UUP.

Is it possible to reverse this trend towards an ultra-conservative Border Unionist Party with no discernible appeal to anyone living east of Lough Neagh ? I really can’t see it, and I’m not even sure that Tom even comprehends the issue. And I tell you what, if I were leading the Alliance Party I’d want to keep the phone lines open to people like Basil McCrea or Mike Nesbitt, just in case.

Oh, and the SDLP is also banjaxed, but we’ll deal with them later.

[1] This may be apocryphal, but some estimates have the UUP having a larger paid-up membership than the DUP. Obviously that doesn’t equate to either activists on the ground or electoral success, as with Fianna Fáil in the south, which in some ways is reminiscent of the UUP post its 2005 wipeout.

A wee overview of the runners and riders #ae11 #lg11

Okay, I hear you. It’s election time again. You can tell it’s election time because the area’s lampposts are covered with cryptic posters informing the broad masses that the Stickies haven’t gone away. So this is an opportunity to take the north’s political temperature.

That said, it’s been an incredibly dull election, for a number of reasons. One is that, with the Assembly having bedded down to the point of having run a full term, the constitutional question, though it’s still wheeled out, has slid down the list of priorities. Even the TUV’s leaflets have had sections on education and unemployment, and fewer pictures of masked gunmen than you’d expect. And yet, on those famed bread-and-butter issues, there’s very little difference between the parties. The only substantial fights in the Assembly have centred either around post-primary selection (no easy solution, as there’s no cross-party consensus, but there’s no doubt Caitríona Ruane has handled the issue really badly) or else Nelson McCausland’s Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (which has 1% of the Stormont budget but generates 90% of the hot air). So what we’re left with is a dominant DUP-SF axis coasting merrily along, while the UUP and SDLP are reduced to bitching that things were much better when they were the main parties. (They weren’t.)

To the extent that there’s a constitutional aspect, it has to do with the obsession Tom Elliott and Jim Allister have developed with the possibility of Martin McGuinness becoming first minister. I think this is not very smart politics. For one thing, it’s unlikely to happen. For another, McGuinness has said with irritating reasonableness that, if such were to transpire, he’d like to abolish the (basically symbolic) distinction between FM and DFM and have Peter as his joint first minister. Nonetheless, the smaller unionist parties have developed plans of Baldrickesque cunning to prevent this appalling vista. Tom Elliott’s plan is for the DUP and UUP to form a grand coalition after the election for the sole purpose of nabbing the FM slot, after which they could get back to tearing lumps out of each other. Jim Allister’s plan is to get every unionist MLA to swear on the Holy Bible (King James Version) that they won’t consent to be Martin’s deputy, thereby making it impossible for an Executive to be formed and collapsing the Assembly. Peter Robinson’s rather more straightforward plan is to say “Vote DUP”.

And here’s the rub. It’s not merely that Martin as FM is a less scary prospect after four years of him as DFM. (He’s even developed a cult following among a minority of unionists who reckon he’s by far the most effective minister at Stormont.) It’s that everybody who’s really concerned about that issue will be voting DUP anyway. So Peter is happy enough to carry on with his can-do “Let’s Keep Norn Iron Moving Forward” campaign and let Elliott and Allister make the argument for voting DUP.

The final reason why this is a boring campaign is that nobody expects big swings. The two main parties – and you could see this from Peter and Martin’s body language in the UTV leaders’ debate – are expecting to have their dominance in their respective electorates easily confirmed. (Remember that in the north there are effectively two elections, the intra-unionist one and the intra-nationalist one.) Their smaller rivals are down but not out. But there will be movement, and in a PR-STV contest those fifth and sixth seats can go in unexpected ways. So let’s have an overview of what the parties are looking to achieve.

First, an overview. The 2007 Assembly results:

DUP 30.1%, 36 seats; SF 26.2%, 28 seats; UUP 14.9%, 18 seats; SDLP 15.2%, 16 seats; Alliance 5.2%, 7 seats; others 8.4%, 3 seats.

And last year’s Westminster results:

SF 25.5%, DUP 25.0%, SDLP 16.5%, UCUNF 15.2%, Alliance 6.3%, TUV 3.9%, others 7.6%.

As you can see, apart from a minority of the DUP base hiving off to the TUV, not a fierce lot of change, even with two peculiar constituencies having high-polling independents. There’s a basic stability there, and this allows us to have a fairly steady benchmark.

So, to the parties.

The Dupes: The DUP will be looking to retain their position as the biggest party in the Assembly and by far the main unionist party. It’s likely they’ll drop a few seats – they polled extremely well last time, have several vulnerable seats and it’s difficult to see gains for them. This is especially the case as proven vote-getters like Big Ian, Wee Ian, Doddsy, Jeffrey Boy and Singing Willie are not on the ballot this time. They are helped though by having largely contained the TUV threat at the Westminsters and by the continued weakness of the UUP. There’s also the gradual fading into the background of the storm that engulfed Peter Robinson last year, with our tactful local media not tending to harp uncharitably on themes of nymphomaniac wives, teenage restaurateurs, plots of land and five pound notes. Not that this has gone away, but Peter will feel he’s weathered the worst of it. So from a base of 36 seats, it’s quite plausible to see them returning with 33 or thereabouts, and they’d be happy with that.

The Shinners: Sinn Féin, who have sharp antennae for these sorts of things, are not hyping up the possibility of becoming the biggest party. What they want is to get to the magic 30 seats that would get them a petition-of-concern veto in the Assembly, like the DUP already has. This doesn’t require much of a gain, but it’s easier said than done. In the first place, they need to hold all their seats, now a notional 27 after boundary changes in Lagan Valley. Then they need to make gains, but their targets tend to be either improbable long shots (a third in Foyle, a second in East Derry) or blood-from-stone efforts in their heartlands (a fourth in Mid Ulster, a third in the Dreary Steeples). They also haven’t managed to crack the SDLP’s residual areas of strength. That said, I think SF’s unparalleled machine will deliver them one or two gains, but perhaps 29 is more realistic than 30.

The Good Ole Boys: If there’s been any entertainment value in this very dull election, it’s come from the reliably shambolic Ulster Unionist Party, which has scarcely known what to be at since losing its pre-eminence. Reg Empey’s recently concluded leadership had involved a dizzying succession of alliances actual and proposed – with the DUP, the SDLP, the TUV and of course the Tories in the snappily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force – leading one to suppose that Reg was being too clever for his own good. Yes, Reg was full of ideas, it’s just that none of them were very good. But now Reg is awa’ to the House of Lairds, and the Belfast-based ex-Vanguard element who had been running the UUP have been displaced by the new culchie regime of Tom Elliott, John McCallister and Danny Kennedy, in what looks very much like Back To The Future IV: Harry West’s Revenge. The culture shock some urban observers got in the UUP leadership election, when busloads of elderly Orangemen from Tyrone and Fermanagh alighted at the Waterfront Hall to vote for their boy Tom, was highly amusing. And Tom Elliott, though a very nice man at close quarters, hasn’t really set the world alight and is unmistakably what he is, a big farmer from Fermanagh, something that plays very well with the UUP’s rural sector but not quite so well in greater Belfast.

There’s a further point here in that the UUP, always a mess of contradictions, has dissolved into an amalgam of squabbling little local fiefdoms that barely resembles a party. This isn’t merely a question of Basil McCrea and David McNarry hating each other’s guts. In a structural sense, the existence of local fiefs with their own personal followings is the UUP’s strength, in providing an electoral bedrock, but also its weakness, in that it’s almost impossible for it to function as a party. Despite Empey’s organisational reforms, despite managing to get a few fresh faces onto the ballot, the old faces are still there. Moreover, at a time when the party is supposed to be presenting a united face to the electorate, it has proved impossible to stop divers UUP bigwigs phoning the Nolan show and running their yaps without first clearing their bright ideas with the party leadership. Incredibly, the leader himself is prone to do this. Finally, we should note that in this election there are former UUP activists running as candidates for the DUP, the TUV, Alliance and UKIP. You can see why the UUP is compulsive viewing, in a car crash kind of way.

The South Down and Londonderry Party: What the SDLP want is to hold what they have, and get that extra seat (or it may be two, the maths is complex) that would give them a second minister under d’Hondt. Secondly, they want to defend their eponymous strongholds against the barbarian hordes known as Sinn Féin. In both South Down and Foyle they benefited in the Westminsters from unionist tactical voting and from the personal popularity of their candidates. But the real sign of strength in those constituencies is beating the Shinners on first preferences under PR. If SF should get their nose ahead in South Down, for instance, that would clearly mark Margaret Ritchie’s cards.

Ah yes, Margaret. Again, this demonstrates the cultural divide in the SDLP. Alasdair McDonnell would have been a more dynamic leader, there’s no doubt, but had his problems with personal unpopularity in the party, hence Margaret winning as the steady-as-she-goes candidate. The question is whether steady as she goes is a viable path for the SDLP. Already one hears rumblings about Margaret’s leadership and whizzkid strategist Conall McDevitt, and they really need a decent performance to quiet those rumblings down. For the meantime, there probably won’t be much change in the party’s totals, but the long-term prognosis is still dodgy. The SDLP continues to draw many votes from middle-class Catholics who remember with reverence Hume and Mallon, and who note that the SDLP wear nicer suits than the Shinners and are less likely to address the electorate as “youse”. But that vote is aging, it’s vulnerable to SF somehow working out an approach to the Catholic middle class (which they haven’t as yet), and east of the Bann it’s vulnerable as much to Alliance as SF, which may go some way to explain the SDLP’s fulminations against the profoundly inoffensive David Ford. Which brings us neatly to

The Nice People: It’s easy to make fun of Alliance. Their earnestness, their zealous moderation, their unmistakable Cherryvelley ambience. Not to mention that doorstopper of a 148-page manifesto. But, having secured their first Westminster victory last year with Naomi Long’s defenestration of Peter Robinson, they’ve got a bit of wind in their sails. Fordy is talking about them taking nine or ten seats, something that would get them a proper minister under d’Hondt, not just a justice ministry held as a DUP-SF stitch-up. This isn’t impossible. Alliance are very transfer-friendly indeed, their foregrounding in the campaign of Naomi (who isn’t even a candidate) shows a sense of who their popular figurehead is, and their cannibalising of the UUP’s almost defunct liberal wing add up to a party worth keeping a wee eye on. That said, Alliance’s almost total non-existence outside the Belfast commuter belt puts a distinct limit on likely gains.

The Prodiban: There was a time, after Jim Allister polled a whopping 66,000 votes in the 2009 Euro-election, that it looked like the TUV would return a swathe of representatives to Stormont. But the party’s damp squib at last year’s Westminsters have lowered the old sights a bit. It’s almost certain Jim will be elected in North Antrim, but it’s harder to see who might join him. Most TUV candidates last year were polling between 5% and 8% – that is, between a third and half a quota, without many obvious sources of transfers. Let’s assume they do a bit better under PR, especially if the turnout is low – I’m still not seeing that TUV breakthrough, unless David Vance knows something I don’t. Love their election broadcast, though.

The odds and sods: As far as independents and small parties go, their goal will just be to get their foot in the door. It’ll be tough for them, but look out in particular for Dawn Purvis, Alan McFarland, David McClarty and of course Eamonn McCann.

And there’s more.

There is of course also a local government election, the first since 2005 due to interminable wranglings over council rationalisation. This is important because it’ll probably be the last to the current councils, and it’ll be important for the parties to get springboards to bigger councils with higher quotas. It’ll also, if we expect a relatively static Stormont result, give us some clues as to the underlying strength of the parties. The result last time out was:

DUP 29.6%, 182 councillors; SF 23.2%, 126 councillors; UUP 18.0%, 115 councillors; SDLP 17.4%, 101 councillors; Alliance 5.0%, 30 councillors; others 6.8%, 28 councillors.

Two things to watch on both sides of the fence:

Major theme: The DUP polled very well indeed last time, with outright control of three councils and effective control of several others, and may be vulnerable to setbacks, though again the weakness of their competitors stands in their favour. Look out especially for the DUP performances in Castlereagh and Ards, where the Iris Affair is still a big deal locally.

Minor theme: The TUV will find it tough going at Assembly level, and will be hoping a reasonable return of councillors will give it a platform to build from. Look out for Ballymena and Ballymoney.

Major theme: Sinn Féin underperformed last time out, and is likely to do quite a bit better this time round. Overall control of a few councils isn’t impossible, but – and I agree with Chris here – perhaps more important is whether the party can break new ground east of the Bann.

Minor theme: there are quite a few candidates representing shades of non-SF republicanism, from éirígí to the IRSP to various independents. I don’t expect them to be very successful, but they are worth watching for signs of discontent in the traditional republican base.

Sin é. Phew.

[Electoral stats– indeed, all the electoral stats you could possibly want – chez Nick.]

Tarzan’s nuts

Tonight we’re going to pose a serious, high-minded question for all of you serious, high-minded political scientists out there. The question is this: do the Ulster Unionist Party have any fucking cop on at all?

Regular readers will realise that we’re about to take another trip into the wacky world of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. And yea, it is so – but the question is a genuine one. And it may also be fairly aimed at Rankin’ Dave Cameron, who thought allying with the Unionist Party was a good idea in the first place. If David Trimble could con him into the UCUNF boondoggle, perhaps Trimble will next try to sell him a bridge. Perhaps he already has.

Anyway, you know the basic outlines of the story. David Cameron and Reg Empey sign an electoral pact, which gives Cameron a ready-made party in the north – at least one more substantial than the actually existing Ulster Tories, whose 25 years of hard work have enabled them to accumulate around 250 members and scarcely more votes – while Reggie gets a bit of Ashcroft money and a ready-made narrative of pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism, something to fire up his grassroots (or at least the unionist blogosphere) and distinguish his party from the dominant DUP. However, Reggie and his new mate “Dave” have had a few problems along the way, illustrated by candidate selection, arising both from the pact itself and from Reggie’s difficulty in sticking to the pact – he has had a tendency to let himself be distracted by shiny new electoral pacts, whether with the DUP or even (putatively) with Jim Allister’s Prodiban. Out of our eighteen constituencies, no less than three can give us telling case studies.

North Down: the Lady’s not for UCUNFing
Reggie went into the UCUNF pact with one (1) incumbent MP. That was Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. She’s been a capable MP and is popular well beyond the ranks of the Unionist Party; she also had a totemic standing within the party as the woman who had kept a UUP toehold at Westminster when the Dupes were sweeping all before them, and who had defeated Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney in so doing.

If you were looking for a candidate who exemplifies what civic unionism might be – non-sectarian, moderate, outward-looking – you might think Sylvia was the ideal candidate. But you’d be wrong, because, unfortunately for Reggie, Sylvia is a stalwart Labour supporter and refused to stand as a Tory candidate under any circumstances. And while Reggie could easily write off his party’s socialist wing (Roy Garland and Chris McGimpsey) as yesterday’s men who had nowhere else to go, Sylvia’s position and popularity would be more of an obstacle. Despite pressure from the UUP’s Toryboy wing, who’ve been agitating for years to have Sylvia driv out of the party, Reggie played the long game – or procrastinated, if you prefer. This only made the Toryboy element crazier, while Sylvia treated her leader with barely-concealed contempt. During last year’s party conference, not only did she not bother to attend but she ostentatiously allowed herself to be photographed doing something much more important – walking her dogs.

But time waits for no man, and eventually Reggie had to get off the pot. And so it is that Sylvia has departed the party, followed by the North Down constituency chairman and her proxy in the Assembly, Major Alan McFarland (they do love their titles, the North Down voters), both of them decrying the whole UCUNF project as they walked out the door. Sylvia plans to run as an independent; the UCUNF nomination has gone to the affable if lightweight Tory contender, Ian “Not Paisley” Parsley, who was European candidate for the Alliance Party less than a year ago. Whether the depleted and demoralised North Down UUA will break its collective back for Parsley remains to be seen; meanwhile, the DUP, with their unerring sense for a chance to rub Reggie’s nose in it, are standing down in Sylvia’s favour. This observer is willing to have a small flutter on Sylvia beating the crap out of young Parsley on polling day.

The net result is that Reggie has not only deprived himself of his sole sitting MP for a mess of pottage called UCUNF, but he’s managed to look weak and indecisive for putting it off so long. The funny thing is that Fred Cobain, an unreconstructed Labour Unionist, has been given the UCUNF nomination in North Belfast – but then, Fred isn’t going to win.

South Antrim: the bed and breakfast man
We covered this one recently. Basically, the UCUNF selection process called for both component parties to select a candidate, both of whom would then go before a joint committee which would decide which one got to represent the Forza Nuova on the ballot paper. It was a complex and tortuous process, but one which (we were told) would weed out obvious wingnuts, and David McNarry. This would be especially important in South Antrim, the party’s number one target constituency and something of a bellwether. For many years the area was represented by veteran UUP man Clifford Forsythe; on Clifford’s death in 2000, the by-election was narrowly won by the DUP’s Rev William McCrea; in the 2001 general election McCrea was narrowly edged out by the UUP’s David Burnside; in the 2005 DUP landslide McCrea won again, but again only narrowly.

So, something of a cockpit seat, and, given the TUV insurgency and the local unpopularity of Singing Willie, one that should be well within UCUNF’s grasp. But then you factor in candidate selection.

In the UUP selection process, Antrim mayor Adrian Watson was the runaway winner with around 90% of party votes. Antrim unionists love their mayor; the guy has a bit of dynamism about him; and, for what it’s worth, he’s very popular with the flute band community in the Antrim area. The problem is that he’s also the proprietor of a bed and breakfast. And, in connection with that, a few years back he was talking on the wireless to Stephen Nolan and happened to mention that he wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of having gay couples staying the night.

Well, that rang alarm bells with the Tories, who have been frenetically courting the pink vote, and who promptly vetoed Watson – they couldn’t have a candidate with such unfashionable views on Teh Gayz, although his anti-Irish and anti-Traveller views apparently weren’t problematic. What muddied the waters even further was Chris Grayling’s musings on the same subject. (Chekov, in his role as the UUP’s resident Chief Wiggum, argued that the two cases were completely different because Watson had a history of making gormless outbursts and Grayling… um…) But defenestrating Watson carried with it some dangers, such as having to run an anonymous Tory candidate, or the possibility of a thoroughly pissed-off Watson running as an independent. Not what you’d consider ideal in your most realistic target seat.

This is the background to Reggie finally growing a pair and volunteering to take on Singing Willie himself. This is a high-risk strategy for Reggie – if he doesn’t win, that’s the end of his leadership. Not to mention that Reggie himself may have, well, not entirely PC opinions on the bed and breakfast question. It would be a terrible pity if, say, Gay Times were to find out and to give Cameron a hard time about it.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone: the ground zero of the sectarian headcount
One of the conditions of the UCUNF pact was the pledge to stand candidates in all eighteen constituencies. The theory behind this is that everybody in the north should have an opportunity to vote for the next UK government. But that cuts little ice down in Fermanagh, where the sectarian jungle drums have been beating loudly. Since 2001, the abstentionist MP for the area has been Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew; but, though it’s a nationalist-majority seat, unionists (resting on a Protestant population of around 45%) have held it in the past with a split nationalist vote. (And vice versa. As long as both unionist parties ran candidates, Michelle would coast back in.) Such is the sectarian polarisation down in FST that this is where the pressure for a “unionist unity” (that is, pan-Prod) candidate was always going to be strongest. As a result, we’ve had several months of rather wearying megaphone diplomacy between the UUP’s Tom Elliott and the DUP’s Arlene Foster, each challenging the other to stand down for the greater good.

And in the background, the search for a neutral Prod to carry the challenge. First there was an attempt to conscript retired RUC detective Norman Baxter, but Norman declared that, while he would be interested in being a cross-community candidate, he had no interest in being a pan-Prod one. Finally, though, they have got their saviour in the shape of recently retired Fermanagh Council chief executive Rodney Connor, who will run as an independent but take the Tory whip if elected. This in itself isn’t a foregone conclusion – he will need to mobilise a solid bloc of unionist voters while hoping that SDLP-voting Catholics don’t desert their party and rally behind Michelle Gildernew.

What’s important about this is that, despite the figleaf of Rodney Connor promising to take the Tory whip, this makes a liar of David Cameron. It is explicitly a sectarian stitch-up – exactly the sort of thing UCUNF was supposed to be a break from, hence the eighteen-candidate pledge. A couple of Tories and Unionists have smelt a rat, though Chief Wiggum is undeterred – he simply wants Connor to play up his cross-community credentials so as to reassure SDLP-voting Catholics into believing that Connor isn’t the pan-Prod candidate, even though that’s exactly what he is. Evidently the theory is that Fermanagh nationalists are too thick to spot a sectarian stitch-up when they see one, and choose to back their own “unity” candidate no matter whether the SDLP stays in the running.

Interesting, too, was the Tory statement on FST, which described the constituency as being deprived of “democratic representation” – which evinces not a little contempt for the democratic choice of the 18,000 people who voted for Michelle Gildernew, not to mention that anyone who’s had contact with our hyperactive agriculture minister could hardly accuse her of not bothering to represent her constituents. The Tories further argued that this was the only one of the five abstentionist-held constituencies where a pact could alter the outcome – in other words, in West Belfast, West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Newry/Armagh there just weren’t enough Prods to win. This demonstrates a complete buying into the logic of Prod-counting, and makes a nonsense of the logic of UCUNF.

And now, it’s spreading. Mark Devenport reports that the Orange Order and Royal Black Preceptory in Sandy Row have delivered an ultimatum to Reggie, the gist of which is that if he doesn’t endorse a pan-Prod candidate in South Belfast they will organise a boycott of UCUNF standard-bearer Paula Bradshaw, while the candidate herself is buckling. And this is all about unseating the non-abstentionist, anti-republican, but still inconveniently Catholic, Alasdair McDonnell. David Cameron has walked right into the sectarian morass of Norn Iron politics, and he only has himself to blame.

If you can’t wait for more election coverage here, there’s plenty in the proper media. I draw your attention in particular to Newt on the plus ça change theme; Chris on the dilemmas facing Margaret Ritchie; and Ben Lowry has a fascinating piece on differential turnout.

Orangemen are not the only fruits

See this punter? His name is Adrian Watson, and he’s the mayor of Antrim. Why are we interested in him? Allow me to recap.

So, the Unionist Party has formed an electoral bloc with the British Tories, which goes under the catchy name of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force. From “Dave” Cameron’s point of view, the UCUNF arrangement provides him with eighteen candidates in the north at a cut price, and the possibility of one or two Unionist MPs pledged to support him in a hung parliament; from Reg Empey’s point of view, it provides him with a Big Idea (non-sectarian pan-UK civic unionism) and a little Ashcroft money. Since the Big Idea seems mostly to be of interest to four or five Toryboy bloggers, one presumes Reggie is more interested in the bottom line.

There are also minuses on both sides. From Cameron’s point of view, he’s now stuck with the Unionist Party, which as any Tory grandee could tell him is more trouble than it’s worth. From Reggie’s point of view, it means having to give a leg up to the 250 or so Ulster Tories and whatever dingbat candidates they came up with. It also meant a commitment to run in all eighteen constituencies, which ruled out arrangements with the DUP to run pan-Prod candidates in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast. (This didn’t, however, stop them playing footsie with the DUP over electoral pacts, and managing as a result to mislay the two Catholics who had been induced to become Tory candidates.) Moreover, there’s been the small matter of the sole Ulster Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who unfortunately for Reggie is a Labour supporter and adamantly refused to stand under the Tory banner.

However, despite such small hiccups, the laborious UCUNF candidate selection process has proceeded. A couple of weeks back, the first nine were announced, including TV’s Mike Nesbitt, rugby legend Trevor Ringland, Daphne Trimble and Norn Iron’s top Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry. We were then told the other nine would soon be forthcoming, and yea, we have eight of them. Thereby hangs a tale, but first, who are the eight?

Firstly, in the two seats that have been the subject of megaphone diplomacy with the DUP, Tom Elliott is nominated in Fermanagh and the scarily energetic Paula Bradshaw in South Belfast. That means no pact with the DUP, and both parties can continue tearing lumps out of each other on the subject of who’s most in favour of unionist unity.

Secondly, there are only two Tories, and I’m not sure one of them counts. The completely unknown Irwin Armstrong is a candidate in North Antrim, but that will be fought out between Ian Óg Paisley and Jim Allister, with Irwin a mere supporting attraction. The other, entering a very crowded field in North Down, is local councillor Ian Parsley.

Come on, you remember Ian Parsley. He was a candidate in last year’s Euro-election. For, er, the Alliance Party, who were evidently pitching for the votes of dyslexic DUP supporters who thought Ian Paisley was on the ballot. He did reasonably well. Then a couple of weeks later he defected to the Tories. This was entirely a matter of principle, and had nothing at all to do with him getting a job at Iain Duncan Donuts’ Centre for Social Justice. And now he’s standing in North Down for UCUNF – to be more precise, he’s standing in front of stuff. Indeed, there has been a little joshing at Westminster about young Mr Parsley.

And what of the vacancy? That would be South Antrim, which is a DUP marginal; the sitting MP, Rev Willie McCrea, is not too popular in the area (basically because you can’t dig him out of Magherafelt and get him to visit South Antrim) and a TUV candidacy could hand the seat to UCUNF. So why no candidate? Perhaps this might explain:

Adrian Watson, the mayor of Antrim, has been chosen by his constituency association as its candidate for the UUP in South Antrim this May. He caused outrage within the gay community in Northern Ireland after saying he would not allow gay and lesbian couples to stay in his family-run bed and breakfast.

In 2006 the UUP councillor told a local radio station: “This is a bed and breakfast in a family home with three young children. Common sense has to prevail. There is no difficulty with members of the gay community phoning up and booking a room. The difficulty would arise because of the logistics of the bed and breakfast – if it was a same-sex couple – and because my wife has strong Christian views she felt it was difficult to facilitate that.

“It is difficult because my 14-year-old daughter helps out immensely. And the obvious question: ‘Why are two men, or why are two women, in a double room?'”

Watson has also been accused of racism towards Ireland’s Traveller community. A year before his remarks about gay couples, he described Travellers at a local halting point in the Antrim area as “scumbags” and “scum of the earth”.

Now, this is very much out of step with “Dave” Cameron’s resprayed Tories, who have been ferociously courting the pink vote and trumpeting their gay candidates. (Nobody seems to have objected too strongly to Mr Watson’s views on Travellers.) And so, the rumour has it, Tory HQ has put the kibosh on Watson, as someone who might be a bit of an embarrassment on the campaign trail. Furthermore, national treasure Peter Tatchell has spoken out, and you really don’t want Peter dogging your footsteps during an election. Best to neutralise the Tatch by getting rid of the candidate.

But the Lord loves a trier, and Mr Watson is not giving up. He’s not the first local politician to say something incautious on Stephen Nolan, and learning from the example of Iris Robinson, he has rushed to say that his original argument was purely hypothetical, and anyway, it was his wife who had the problem:

“I have a completely live-and-let-live attitude to gays and I know that many gay people support our party [I am not sure that Steven King and Jeff Dudgeon count as “many”, but we'll let that go] which has a far more tolerant view than the DUP, which has been tainted with homophobia through the interventions of the First Minister’s wife, the then MP and MLA, Iris Robinson.

“I would never discriminate against gay people and, if elected as the MP for South Antrim, I can honestly say that I would work for my gay constituents as energetically as for any other constituent. The gay community has absolutely nothing to fear from me.”

Well, perhaps. As a B&B owner, Mr Watson might also be aware that under New Labour’s Sexual Orientation Regulations, that sort of thing can get you into trouble. Indeed, from now on, holding an opinion deemed unfashionable by Mr Ben Summerskill could get you into quite serious legal difficulties. I suppose, if you wanted to mount an entirely grudging and half-hearted defence of Mr Watson, he’s probably more progressive on such matters than Willie McCrea.

But here’s an interesting point. Over recent months, the Tories have been taking a little heat about their exotic allies in the European Parliament – Czech climate change deniers, Belgian flat-taxers, and those wacky Latvian SS veterans. One of the lightning rods has been one Michał Kamiński, a Polish MEP who – weirdly enough – looks like Johann Hari’s evil twin, and who belongs to the Law and Justice Party. There has been a lot of argument about exactly what Mr Kamiński may or may not have said about the Jews at various points in his past; what’s not seriously disputed is that Law and Justice takes a line on Teh Gayz that would not be wildly out of place in the north.

Perhaps Mr Cameron could explain why what’s unacceptable in Antrim is perfectly all right in Warsaw. But don’t hold your breath.

Mike, Fearghal and the rise of celebrity candidates

I have a confession to make. You’ll find this deeply shocking, but I am not a member of the Ulster Unionist Party. I have, in fact, never been a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, nor do I feel the slightest desire to join the Ulster Unionist Party. Now, if Reg Empey is to be believed, that makes me the ideal Ulster Unionist candidate.

As we approach the Westminster election, candidacies are coming thick and fast. Yesterday there was an announcement from the South Down and Londonderry Party, which I’ll get to presently. The DUP association in Strangford also selected gun-toting Ulster-Scots speaker Jim Shannon to succeed Iris Robinson. But what I want to concentrate on is the snappily named Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force.

The laborious process of UCUNF candidate selection has still not concluded, but joint candidates are in place for nine of the eighteen constituencies. North Down is of course a straggler due to the Sylvia Problem, but there are a number of other strategic areas that haven’t been decided yet. Of those that have, all are from the Unionist side of the Forza Nuova, and are an interesting mix of time-servers and newish faces. For instance, party deputy leader Danny Kennedy once again runs in Newry/Armagh. Danny is widely reckoned to be one of the Unionists’ more substantial figures, and he might do well in a winnable seat, but down in Newry his only function will be to have the crap knocked out of him by Conor Murphy. And in Lagan Valley we have a familiar face though a new electoral contender in Daphne Trimble, wife of David. Daphne is universally acknowledged to be by far the more personable half of the Trimble partnership, and she has the added bonus of really having it in for turncoat Jeffrey Donaldson, though barring an unforeseen mishap it’s hard to see Jeffrey Boy’s majority being troubled.

On the starrier end, which is what we’re getting to, East Belfast will be contested by rugby legend Trevor Ringland, who dipped his toe into politics a while back by fronting an ill-fated campaign to try and persuade Catholics to become small-u unionists, although that does make him a decent fit for UCUNF. Meanwhile Upper Bann, as predicted, will be contested by Flash Harry, Norn Iron’s leading Freddie Mercury impersonator. He’ll save every one of us! And finally in Strangford you have former UTV news anchor turned victims’ commissioner Mike Nesbitt, who isn’t AFAIK a member of the Unionist Party, though presumably he’ll join if elected. This also means that the duly selected UU candidate for Strangford, Phil Smith, who’s a party officer and fancied his chances, is rather pissed off at a parachutist arriving ahead of him.

Well, it does make a sort of sense, in that TV Mike is the kind of postmodern candidate we haven’t really had here before (if you discount Rainbow George) and his candidacy fits in with the logic of UCUNF. He’s stressing personality, running virtually as an independent with only a nominal party branding. Who knows, it might work.

However, this is not to say that the inherent contradictions of the UCUNF project have gone away. This is the problematic of why the British Tories would ally with the Unionists, who they must know are more trouble than they’re worth; and why the UUs would want to form an alliance with the minuscule Ulster Tories, many of whom are disgruntled defectors from their own party.

There are a number of aspects to this. The political justification is pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism, something that’s greatly excited the Toryboy wing of the UU blogosphere. More prosaically, Reg Empey has got some material backup as well as a workable idea – something his party has never been big on – while “Dave” Cameron may have a couple of unionist seats he can count on in a hung parliament (then again, he may not). The Tories, although their Norn Iron organisation doesn’t amount to much, also held out the prospect of one or two Catholic candidates to underline UCUNF’s non-sectarian credentials. They also extracted from Reggie the promise that there would be a UCUNF candidate in every constituency, the rationale for which was that every elector should have the opportunity to vote for the next UK
government.

Now then. The big problem is that non-sectarianism doesn’t sit easily with the Unionist psyche, and those jungle drums are mighty tempting. The secondary problem is a certain lack of tactic finesse both on Tory and Unionist parts. There was a time, when the Iris Robinson scandal was at its height, that Reggie could really have seized the initiative and put the DUP under serious pressure. Instead he chose to fart around in “unionist unity” talks that didn’t really go very far but did let the Dupes off the hook. In doing so, he managed to mislay the two Catholic Tories who had been induced to stand for UCUNF, Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson, although rumour has it that there are efforts to get them to unresign.

Ground zero for this is Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where rural intrigue around unity candidates has a long history, and where local unionists are hellbent on getting rid of the sitting PSF MP, Michelle Gildernew. To be blunt, neither the DUP’s Arlene Foster nor the UUP’s Tom Elliott stand a chance without a unity candidacy, but neither will stand down for the other and so the search is on for a compromise candidate. The word was that retired RUC detective Norman Baxter was in the frame, but Norman has stated that, while he’d be interested in being a cross-community candidate, he’s definitely not interested in being the pan-Prod candidate. Yet that’s what Fermanagh unionists want.

Even so, the maths are tricky. The last election ended up like this:

Gildernew (PSF)       18,638  38.2%
Foster (DUP)            14,056  28.8%
Elliott (UUP)            8,869   18.2%
Gallagher (SDLP)      7,230   14.8%

So in theory a unionist unity candidate should be able to win… but it’s not that simple in practice. In the first place, Michelle’s effective performance as agriculture minister – and there are an awful lot of farmers in the constituency – would tend to boost her standing. Secondly, a unionist unity candidate would need to be able to turn out virtually a solid unionist vote to get up to around that 47% mark. And even then, look at all those juicy SDLP votes ripe for the squeezing. For a unionist unity victory you would need the SDLP vote to stay substantial, or at least not to fall below the 6% mark. However, such are the sectarian dynamics of the area that even the sniff of a pan-Prod candidacy would send local nationalists rallying behind Michelle and put a severe squeeze on the SDLP. So even if you got it, the plan may not work.

Not to mention that a pan-Prod candidacy – even if the candidate entered into the sectarian headcount has a UCUNF branding – completely undermines the “non-sectarian civic unionism” shtick of the Forza Nuova. In Fermanagh/South Tyrone, you can be non-sectarian or you can be unionist, but nobody has yet discovered how to be both.

Sticking with Fermanagh/South Tyrone, there’s that dramatic announcement from the SDLP. We had all assumed that veteran party standard-bearer Tommy Gallagher would be getting yet another run, but he hasn’t been very successful in the past and now Margaret Ritchie has acquired a Mike Nesbitt of her very own. Yes, it’s former UTV political correspondent Fearghal McKinney! (Cue wild cheering from broad masses.)

Whether this does any good in terms of reviving the SDLP in the west remains to be seen. Fearghal is an articulate enough fellow and wouldn’t be unattractive as a candidate, but I have the sneaking suspicion he’s on a hiding to nothing here. Then again, given the job losses and straitened financial circumstances at UTV, perhaps Mike and Fearghal are starting a trend. Will we see a Frank Mitchell candidacy in South Down? Which party will be imaginative enough to stand Adrian Logan, Tina Campbell or Julian Simmons? You know, if the people of Nottinghamshire get Gloria de Piero as an MP, I think they may have the better deal of it than we have.

Then again, there’s also the occupational hazard of celebrity candidates. Not having spent years toiling away on district councils sorting out people’s housing benefit, they tend to get very impatient when things don’t go their way. Just look at George Lee.

More thoughts on this from Mark.

Rud eile: Apropos of this occasional discussion we have about how it’s not just what you do but how you do it that matters, I found this interesting. It’s from the wacky world of atheism, but leftists should find some familiar traits, especially when it comes to bad behaviour online.

Rud eile fós: B16’s weekly General Audiences are interesting enough in their own right, being essentially a seminar from one of the most distinguished theologians alive, but it’s important to watch out for those casual asides. Rocco identifies a classic zinger in this week’s talk.

The master tactician

I’m not going to write anything about the current discussions at Hillsborough until something emerges – and even when something does, it’s likely to be a holding operation. Rather, I want to focus on these secret Tory-Unionist talks two Sundays back.

There were two things that immediately struck me about the Hatfield House talks. One was to ask, “Why on earth would the Tories and Unionists hold a top-secret summit in a pub on the Ormeau Road?” Then I realised the reference was in fact to Lord Cranborne’s stately pile. The second thing was that it was a bit cheeky of the DUP to tell the Shinners they wanted a break from the policing and justice negotiations, on the grounds that they didn’t negotiate on the Sabbath, only to head off to a get-together with Reg Empey and Owen Paterson.

Little detail has emerged from the Hatfield talks except that electoral matters were discussed. This would appear to have three dimensions – an electoral arrangement to maximise the number of unionist MPs returned to Westminster; an arrangement to support the Tories in the event of a close or inconclusive result at the general election; and some sort of wheeze to prevent Martin McGuinness becoming first minister after the next Stormont election. But there’s some unpicking to be done here in terms of what’s in it for Peter, what’s in it for Reggie, and what’s in it for Dave.

To begin with Rankin’ Dave Cameron, his reasoning is absurdly transparent. With the polls pointing to either a hung parliament or a slim Tory majority, what he wants is to gain the assured votes of ten or so unionist MPs. This is of a piece with his thinking on UCUNF in the first place, which as far as I could see had more to do with Scotland than the north – the big selling point being the rash pledge to run eighteen Forza Nuova candidates over here, thus underlining his dispositional unionism with a low-overhead gesture of his pan-UK credentials. It all confirms my view of Rankin’ Dave as a perishing lightweight, and not just because of the question of whether he can be an honest broker in government, something that an attempt to recreate the UUUC would naturally undermine – he should really go and have a talk with John Major about what it’s like to have to rely on unionist votes. Any Tory grandee with a bit of sense could have told him that getting mixed up with the Unionist Party would be more trouble than it was worth. Since Andrew Bonar Law stood with Carson a century ago and incited armed insurrection against the elected British government, the Unionists have always meant trouble.

Peter’s motivation is easy to understand. His primary concern is Jim Allister, his secondary concern is to spook the Shinners. If he manages to get an electoral pact, well and good – such a pact would work to the DUP’s advantage given its incumbency advantage, higher-quality cadre and the fact that it can easily sacrifice candidacies in South Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone, seats the DUP wasn’t going to win anyway; if he doesn’t… well, he’s no worse off that he was to begin with, and he knows that any raising of the “unionist unity” banner, with him managing to inveigle Reggie into discussions on the matter, raises a fatal question mark over the logic behind the UCUNF boondoggle. This proves once again that Peter is smarter than Reggie, or indeed Dave.

Which brings me to the question of what the fuck Reg Empey thinks he’s doing. I think you have to look at this in terms of the schizophrenic strategies pursued by the OUP in recent years. At Stormont, they’ve alternated between hankering after the old coalition of the centre – that is to say themselves, the SDLP and Alliance, with the Dupes and Shinners relegated back to the margins – by forging a close working relationship with the SDLP; and on the other hand, flirting with Jim Allister and trying without much success to outflank the DUP on the right.

This all has to do with the confusion of a party that used to be a monolithic catch-all party for Prods, trying to reinvent itself in an environment where the DUP has outpaced it. Hence the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, which may be a dopey idea, but that’s not to be scorned in a party that’s been bereft of ideas for a very long time – and indeed, never used to need them.

The ever readable Turgon had some interesting thoughts on this over on Slugger:

The battle between the UUP and DUP has been going on for years. It must be remembered that forty years ago Dr. Paisley was a marginal figure and when the unionist monolith began to fracture the likes of Bill Craig were actually much more senior and significant figures within unionism than the Big Man. However, the DUP prospered more than any of the other pretenders to the UUP throne of lead unionist party. Any attempt by the UUP to move “leftwards” (as an aside I find the designation of hard line unionism as right wing and its opposite left wing irritating and inaccurate but it is a useful shorthand) resulted in segments of unionism moving towards the DUP or else the UUP splitting and moving back rightwards.

Hence, I would argue, Jim Allister. As long as unionist politics exists there will be a DUP or something like it – indeed, the TUV now is more or less a functional equivalent of the DUP as it was forty years ago.

Although comparisons with Nelson are spectacularly inapt, the unionist leader who managed to do a Battle of the Nile on the DUP, was of course Jim Molyneaux. Molyneaux used to say that he had contained Dr. Paisley because he had “out righted” him. That was not, however, entirely accurate; rather what Molyneaux achieved was to have a broad church party which managed simultaneously to be more right wing than the DUP (e.g. Willie Ross) but had many members much more liberal to hoover up the more moderate unionist vote (Ken Maginnis). It also appealed to the Orange vote (Rev. Martin Smith) and had proper fundamentalists (Nelson McCausland); yet had a few Catholics (John Gorman); was right wing (Enoch Powell) and yet socialist (Chris McGimpsey) and even with working class roots (Harold McCusker). This eclectic mix allowed Molyneaux to offer a party which had members who could resonate with practically all unionists and for a significant time he reaped the electorate rewards, steadily eroding the DUP vote in all save the European elections where Dr. Paisley gained a huge personality vote.

Old Lemonsucker was a smarter man than he was given credit for, and understood better than anyone since Brookeborough the nature of leadership in unionism. Brookeborough, you’ll recall, was prime minister for twenty years, during which time his usual routine was to spend one morning a week at Stormont dealing with correspondence, and the rest of his time hunting foxes down in Fermanagh. Jim Molyneaux famously once issued a statement to say that he wouldn’t be issuing any more statements for the foreseeable future. That’s why he could hold his anarchic party together, while the more dynamic David Trimble couldn’t.

Since that the UUP have largely tried to regain their position by being more moderate than the DUP and have gone on a long, largely fruitless quest for that mythical beast: the garden centre Prod along with the apparently equally unicorn like unionist Catholic. By the tie up with the Conservatives they seem to think that they had created a formula which would attract both sorts of unicorn and tame them to become the white chargers they needed to reclaim their rightful place as lead unionist party. To be fair they have gained some Catholic members and increased their profile. However, at their first outing in the European election, they owed their relative defeat of the DUP more to the TUV’s slicing off approaching a half of the DUP’s vote than to any huge increase in their own support. The ogres of the TUV had had more effect on the victory than the unicorns.

Well, neither of these creatures is entirely mythical, and UCUNF did bring a few of them out of the woodwork, as well as energising the OUP’s Toryboy wing, who have seized on the idea of pan-UK non-sectarian civic unionism with a link to Cameron as the magic formula that would outflank the Dupes while somehow persuading nationalists to become unionists. But there’s also the call of the jungle drums, which is where the unionist unity drive comes in. Reggie’s problem is that these two impulses are contradictory.

You see this with the candidacy problems. The New Force has a tortuous candidate selection process; but beyond that, the Unionist part thereof has still not sorted out its selections, thanks largely to the situation in North Down where Lady Sylvia is not for UCUNFing. As a result, the tiny Ulster Tories have got utterly pissed off at the Unionists’ failure, a few months before an election, to have candidates in place. Their mood has not been improved by this dalliance with the DUP, after they’d been assured by both Dave and Reggie that UCUNF would be contesting all eighteen seats here. So now we’ve seen the withdrawal of three Tory candidates, two of whom – Peter McCann and Sheila Davidson – are Catholic. Reggie swears blind that he’s not shafting Catholic Tories for the sake of a pan-Prod electoral stitch-up, but the Hatfield talks don’t provide the best backdrop.

There is another factor, that of UCUNF’s supposed appeal to the Garden Centre Prod and the Catholic Unionist. You may object that, to the extent that these creatures exist, most of them are in the Alliance Party, but that’s not the point. The point is that they have some significance for candidate selection, and the latter have a disproportionate significance. Peter McCann, the Catholic Tory from west Belfast, was a totemic figure for UCUNF not because he was going to win over loads of Catholics to the unionist cause; his role was to be our local analogue to Shaun Bailey, the black Tory who’s standing in Hammersmith. Now, black Londoners remain in their huge majority loyal to Labour, and most of them seem to regard Shaun Bailey as a chancer on the make, but Shaun isn’t being heavily promoted for the benefit of black Londoners. If he wins a few over, well and good, but Shaun has to be put in the context of Cameron’s detoxification of the Tory brand. Thus, Shaun is being targeted at white middle-class Londoners of liberal disposition who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more; Peter McCann could have appealed to Garden Centre Prods who otherwise would abstain or vote Alliance, as a reassurance that UCUNF wasn’t sectarian.

It goes further than that, of course. Word is circulating that Reggie is headhunting Trevor Ringland to stand in East Belfast, and TV’s Mike Nesbitt to stand in Strangford. These boys, should they run, would be aimed squarely at the Garden Centre Prod vote; but they would be good candidates for a non-sectarian, middle-of-the-road politic, and probably wouldn’t be interested in anything that looks even vaguely like an exercise in sectarian headcounting. And then, look at Sylvia Hermon herself. She’s presentable, articulate, moderate in her politics and a transparently decent human being – she also has the advantage of being a Chief Constable’s widow in a constituency full of cops who served under Sir Jack. She’d actually be an ideal “civic unionist” candidate, if it wasn’t for her unfortunate refusal to stand as a Tory under any circumstances. Then again, she’d be equally plausible as an Alliance candidate, and even as an independent should certainly not be written off.

Beyond the implications for the OUP, there’s a broader peace process implication. If your strategy is based on the coalition of the centre, or voluntary coalition (and we know which party that’s designed to exclude), you need a cross-community partner. Specifically, you need a substantial SDLP. Now, the SDLP as is may be beyond help, but you should be wary of taking steps that actually hammer more nails into its coffin. The first effect of a unionist electoral pact would be to knock out Alasdair McDonnell, the man best placed to revive the SDLP. Secondly, even if you manage to knock out Michelle Gildernew – and, given her popularity with Fermanagh farmers, that’s no certainty – in the process Michelle would squeeze the SDLP in Fermanagh/South Tyrone into oblivion, with a likely knock-on effect for neighbouring constituencies. More generally, anything that looks like a revival of UUUC politics is a huge incentive to nationalists to rally behind the party that promises to most aggressively represent Catholic rights – and that ain’t the SDLP. What price a coalition of the centre, if the SDLP is too enfeebled to be of any use?

Finally, the hard fact is that seats at Stormont are more important by far than seats at Westminster. The big prize is a unionist bloc at Stormont that would prevent Marty being elected first minister – which is entirely symbolic in terms of the actual joint powers of the OFMDFM. Then again, if I read the d’Hondt system correctly, that may actually cost unionism in terms of Executive ministers, and McGuinness would still hold a position in the joint presidency that meant the FM couldn’t do anything without his consent.

Did I say Peter was smarter than Reggie? It could be that Reggie, in his chasing after short-term tactical advantage, is being too clever for his own good.

Reggie and his malcontents

dave-reg

So, the Official Unionist conference was on at the weekend, and I know readers will be agog to hear about it. This was the second party conference since the Forza Nuova lash-up with the Tories was agreed, and of course the big initiative was at the centre of things. Last year, Rankin’ Dave Cameron himself turned up; this year’s guest speaker was William Jefferson Hague, which might seem like a bit of a come-down, but then this is a party that’s used to the devastating charisma of Michael McGimpsey.

There’s no doubt about it, the UUs are in better spirits than they’ve been for some time. There are those who have doubts about the UCUNF boondoggle – and we’ll get onto some of those momentarily – but at least pan-UK unionism is an idea, and that’s not insignificant for a party that has lacked any vaguely coherent ideas for a very long time. Sir Reggie’s reorganisation, shifting power from the constituencies to the centre, makes them look more like an actual party and not quite so much like a disorganised rabble. The Tory connection brings some material resources, and a connection to what looks like a winning team on its way to government. Perhaps most importantly, there’s Jim Nicholson’s achievement in outpolling the DUP at the European election. Well, I say Jim’s achievement; his main achievement was to hold his own while Jim Allister took the DUP to the cleaners, but then the Unionist Party can go a long way on schadenfreude at the DUP’s travails.

There’s also the possibility that the Prodiban assault on the DUP may mean them picking up a couple of Westminster seats next year, even if they don’t significantly increase their vote. South Antrim could be interesting – Singing Willie has never been popular there, not least because of his unwillingness to leave Magherafelt and actually set foot in South Antrim. Grumpy Gregory is not totally secure in East Derry. And a face-off in Upper Bann between gospel-singing DUP incumbent David Simpson, and Freddie Mercury impersonator Flash Harry for the Official Unionists, could be better than X Factor.

Not that Reggie is getting things all his own way. The UUs’ Labour-oriented personalities are still not very gruntled at all this palling around with Cameron – the party’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, didn’t bother turning up for the second year in a row, while veteran Belfast councillor Fred Cobain did attend, but cleared off halfway through to go to the Crusaders match. And following the conference, there’s been yet another broadside from the Unionist Party’s socialist wing (essentially Roy Garland and Chris McGimpsey). Their open letter is reproduced in full over on Slugger, but here are the highlights.

Throughout its history the UUP has been a party which had the foresight and the commitment to fend off Irish independence, to form the Government of Northern Ireland, and to keep Northern Ireland running over half a century, including the challenging period of the Second World War. Today it appears that the UUP does not have the vision to see across to the far side of the Albertbridge Road.

Ooo.

The new arrangement is a great deal for the Conservatives.

They tried and failed to gain support here over a decade ago. In the 1992 General Election they received 5.7% of the popular vote. Their last outing was in the 1993 Local Government Elections when 9437 brave souls gave the Conservatives their First Preference Votes.

Under this new dispensation the UUP leadership are offering the Tories a Northern Ireland wide organisation, tens of thousands of loyal voters, around 150 councillors, over 20 MLAs and two seats at the Executive table at Stormont.

Bearing in mind the chronic feebleness of the Ulster Tories, there’s something to that, if you look at things on the Norn Iron rather than UK scale. Reggie would no doubt urge sceptics to look at the big picture. And, while Cameron and Hague are dispositional unionists, there’s a pragmatic argument for acquiring a regional affiliate at little cost. I also suspect Cameron is interested in the Unionists not merely for their own sake, but also in terms of what might happen in Scotland.

What does our Party receive in return? At one Executive Committee meeting we were assured that we would have two seats at the Cabinet table in any new Tory administration.

Assuming Cameron follows through on this, I would hazard a guess that David Trimble would be a safe bet for one of those. For the other, it depends whether the Unionists can elect any MPs. For all we know, this arrangement could mean Flash Harry sitting in the Cabinet. Or, if worst comes to worst, there’s always Jim Molyneaux, who I’m sure would be willing to serve despite being 175 years old.

The UUP had been members of the European Peoples’ Party for all of Jim Nicholson’s European career.

It was a grouping he was happy with and it had treated him and the UUP well – making him one of its three Quaestors. However, David Cameron did not favour the EPP and because Jim had to take the Tory whip he had to leave and join another more right wing group replete with some fairly dodgy eastern European MEPs.

There’ll be no taking the march past of the Latvian SS veterans for Reggie, then.

In addition,we are now approaching a General Election wherein our candidates have to be jointly selected by the handful of Northern Ireland Tories. Some constituencies have been told that they must select Tories irrespective of the wishes of the local activists. Others have been told to delay selection meetings until secret discussions have been undertaken with London. Never in the history of the UUP have we submitted to another party having the final say as to who we should run for election.

Considering the relative weight of the two parties, it is a bit of a scud, right enough.

Historically the Ulster Unionist Party was a uniting force within the pro-British community. Irrespective of your national politics you could be an Ulster Unionist. Left and Right could sit together in the same branch. Even when our MPs took the Tory whip the party remained a uniting force within Ulster.

That’s right, historically it was a catch-all party for Prods. The weakness of this argument, of course, is that since its eclipse by the DUP it can’t hope to regain its status as a catch-all party, and must find some distinctive identity beyond “We’re the unionist party that isn’t the DUP.” Reggie understands the question – whether he has the right answer is another matter.

Will those working class constituencies which have always returned Ulster Unionists still do so once it becomes clear that the Ulster Unionists have become little more than the eccentric old maiden aunt who lives in David Cameron’s house but to whom no one pays a blind bit of notice.

Ouch! Actually, that reference to the working class raises a whole other train of thought about the sociology of unionism, but that would take us so far afield it’ll have to wait for another post.

Perhaps you, Sir Reg, and the rest of the leadership should remember the advice given to Edward Carson when he followed a similar road. “Be careful Edward, the Tories have never adopted a cause yet but they have betrayed it in the end.”

You don’t have to go as far back as Carson. You only have to ask which party was in government at Westminster in 1972 when Stormont was prorogued. David Cameron may be a dispositional unionist, but are we to believe that, if Washington pressures him to give some concession to Gerry, he’s going to jeopardise his relationship with the Americans for the sake of Reg Empey’s feelings? Garland has been especially insistent on this point, arguing that the Unionists simply can’t rely on the Tories to stand up for Norn Iron – the Unionists would have to do the standing up for themselves.

But then again, these malcontents are yesterday’s men to some extent, of an older generation, representing a tradition of Labour Unionism that’s in danger of extinction. They don’t have an alternative vehicle to hand; they have nowhere else to go but home, and, whatever their ability to stir the pot in their associations, Reggie can probably afford to ignore them.

What he can’t afford to ignore for much longer is the Sylvia problem in North Down. The incumbent MP has made it clear that she won’t stand on a Tory ticket under any circumstances. The North Down Tories have selected the affable but lightweight Ian Parsley, despite him having been in the Alliance Party only five minutes ago. The Unionist Association hasn’t selected a candidate. It’s a tricky little quandary for Reggie. Complicating things is North Down’s long-established preference for quirky independent politics, and in particular UU defectors – first the late Jim Kilfedder, then Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney. Lady Sylvia is so popular with the housewives of North Down as to be virtually bulletproof, with or without her party. And a party in the fragile condition of the Unionists will have to think very carefully about whether it wants to dispense with one of its most capable representatives, when it doesn’t even have a credible replacement lined up.

I’ve said before that the Tories would find the Unionists more trouble than they were worth. When Cameron went in for his rhetorical flourish about the Tories fighting every constituency in the UK, did he have any idea what he was letting himself in for?

Thinking outside the box

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We’re going to take a momentary break from The Lost Revolution, although this post will touch on one or two relevant points. What I want to ponder is a simple matter of political strategy. There are two quite serious strategic conundra that face anyone interested in progressive politics in Ireland. Let me state at the outset that I won’t be putting forward any answers to these issues, because I don’t have any. But, quite honestly, neither does anyone else.

The first of these issues is how to break Fianna Fáil’s grip on the southern working class. I don’t mean weaken it conjuncturally, but break it for the longer term. Sure, FF are undergoing a torrid time in the polls at the minute – currently registering fourth in Dublin, unless I’m mistaken – and Biffo Cowen looks like he’s heading up a dead government walking, but it would be a fool who would predict that this was permanent. FF have very deep social roots, and a couple of years of a useless Fine Gael-Labour government could quite easily see the buggers bouncing back again. What would be needed would be to get FF down, keep them down and for some other formation to capture their base before they could make a comeback. I find it difficult to see that happening any time soon.

The second, and much more tricky, issue is that of how to end partition without armed struggle. One may object that armed struggle hasn’t been very successful in ending partition, but that’s hardly the point, at least if you’re worried about more generations coming along and taking up the physical force tradition. During the Troubles, you used to have these meetings organised by the left where the left speakers would attack the armed struggle as being either morally wrong or tactically counterproductive or both. Inevitably, there would be some Provo sympathisers in the audience who would ask the leftists to produce an alternative strategy. And they could never do it convincingly.

The left, in its approach to the north, has been quite heavy on schemata and has had a whole array of tactics, but a plausible strategy has never really been forthcoming. You found this even – perhaps especially – with people who prided themselves on their theoretical sophistication. The old-time Peoples Democracy used to have a schema, derived basically from Trotsky’s permanent revolution formula, whereby the national struggle in the north would create shock waves in the south which would in turn open up an all-Ireland revolutionary vista. That, self-evidently, did not work out, not least because the southern bourgeoisie was a lot stronger and deeper rooted than PD allowed for. PD’s successor group, when not impersonating Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, seem to have turned that schema on its head and now look to industrial militancy in the south to create shock waves in the north. You’ll notice that this is still a schema, and doesn’t really have much in the way of empirical evidence to support it.

Militant/the SP developed quite an elaborate schema which was, if I interpret Peter Hadden correctly, designed as a counter to the republican and official communist stages approach of resolving the national stage of the revolution and then progressing to the socialist stage. Peter claimed to have broken with that whole approach, but to the sceptical outsider it looked as if he had simply reversed it – by positing the national question as an epiphenomenon of capitalism, what was then required was for the working class to achieve power north and south, with economic militancy as the motor, and thereafter the national question would be easy to sort out. By way of contrast, the SWP (who have long had to negotiate the difficulty of an extremely anti-republican leadership and a membership containing a fair percentage of hardline republicans with an embarrassing tendency to talk like PD members circa 1973) put forward a schema that was quite appealing in its crude clarity – these issues would be solved in the course of the revolutionary process, so the task of the moment was for the revolutionary party to get more bums on seats. This would seem more convincing if the vanguard was a little better at keeping bums on seats for longer than five minutes.

Of course, the foregoing is a massive generalisation, and there is plenty more that could be said – in terms, for example, of how Militant expected a mass left split from the Labour Party, or how PD expected a mass left split from the republican movement, both of which hopes were obviously disappointed. But these are on the level of theoretical schemata. There has never been any shortage of tactics either, but strategies properly speaking have been thin on the ground. I mention this not in an accusatory way, because it’s not as if I have any ready-made strategy either.

The classic socialist strategy for ending partition has been to try and break the Protestant working class, or a substantial section of it anyway, away from unionism. It’s the most obvious alternative to physical force, and it’s not rocket science or any great novelty – the CPNI, probably under Greaves’ influence, wrote this perspective into Ireland’s Path to Socialism in the early 1960s. But then you come up against the question of how exactly to go about doing this. Republican and communist participants in NICRA were very much informed by the Greaves perspective, but it quickly became apparent in the course of the civil rights movement that splitting the Unionist Party and winning over the Protestant working class were not at all the same thing. That the Protestant working class, under the impact of civil rights, turned not to socialism but to Paisleyism demonstrated that.

A lot of this comes down to how you perceive unionism. There’s been an element of traditional republican thinking that has a serious blind spot in respect of unionism, basically seeing it as a function of the British presence rather than an autonomous entity. Recognising unionism as a thing in itself was obviously a conceptual breakthrough, but one that doesn’t answer any questions but simply raises a whole lot of new questions. There’s also been this tendency, not only amongst republicans but also on the Marxist left, to see unionist identity as something quite shallow and easily discarded – as a form of false consciousness which Protestant workers will see through when they enter into class struggle, for instance. No, there’s more to it than that, and seeing unionism as a reactionary ideology doesn’t mean, uncomfortable as this may be, that it isn’t organic.

This is where Henry Patterson scored points in his attack on republican civil rights thought in The Politics of Illusion. (Henry was still a member of the Workers Party when he wrote it, but there are specifics about his background – he’d previously been in the Workers Association, a BICO front group, and was something of an apostle of the late Bill Warren – that are as relevant, and probably more so, than the WP’s positions.) Basically, the Greaves strategy saw that discrimination was the material basis of unionism, and since discrimination against Catholics necessarily meant discrimination in favour of Protestants, it cemented the Protestant working class to the Orange state. Remove discrimination, and you kicked away unionism’s material prop, and therefore (so the thinking went) removed the Protestant worker’s motivation for supporting unionism.

This didn’t work. The schema failed to take into account the stiff resistance the Protestant working class would put up to a movement against discrimination, for precisely that reason. Henry also derides as wishful thinking the idea that, in the absence of discrimination, unionism would fade away – unionist identity was a lot more deeply rooted than that, as he ably pointed out. The trouble with Henry’s critique is that he has an equal and opposite blind spot, which is the assumption that, if discrimination was abolished, northern nationalism would fade away – that there would be no material basis for a separatist project and so northern Catholics would simply retreat into a sort of cultural Irishness. In essence, this following the line of least resistance leads only to Walkerism, and that doesn’t work either. It also leads to the world of endless Barry White columns in the Belfast Telegraph wondering bemusedly why northern nationalists couldn’t be satisfied with a Welsh-style recognition of their cultural identity (actually, unionism even finds that difficult) or why prosperous Catholics on the Malone Road weren’t becoming unionists.

Disappointing as though it may be for the thoroughgoing historical materialist, ethno-national identities do have a life of their own, and are usually very entrenched. And while some purist Marxists may say that the workers have no country, with the wish being father to the thought, in fact it’s elements of the capitalist class that have moved most swiftly into a sort of post-national Europeanism, the charms of which the actually existing working class so far remains resistant to.

Could things change? Hypothetically, yes, but in unexpected ways and not necessarily with the working class at the centre. Here I’m going to do some shameless speculating, but it’s no more off the wall than some of what gets argued as quite serious politics.

Firstly, Newt was mentioning just there about some of the interesting noises Big Ian was making in his fairly brief stint as first minister. That is to say, the Dochtúir Mór seemed to be hinting at an idiosyncratic sort of Ulster nationalism, which might involve close relations with the south but which also embraced Paisley’s very chummy relationship with Alex Salmond. This however proved too heady a brew for the DUP, and Peter Robinson’s mood music is much more conventional. This is not to say that the logic of devolution, and perhaps developments in Scotland particularly, might not work itself out in an unpredictable way.

Secondly, one should not dismiss out of hand the idea that a conservative Catholic movement might find common cause with culturally conservative Protestants – although probably not these guys – in resisting the tide of secularism. Bernie Smyth has actually had some success along these lines on the single issue of abortion. One can only imagine the horror of our bien-pensants at such an appalling vista.

Finally, there’s a class aspect here, and I’m thinking in a sense about something that Malachi mentions every so often, about the middle class’s abdication from politics and whether this might be reversed in a post-Troubles environment. I was struck by Garibaldy’s account of the appearance of Chris McGimpsey at the WP NI conference, where Chris mentioned how his electoral base on the Shankill owed a lot to the old NILP base, which by now is dying out through old age. But, while socialist unionists like Chris McGimpsey or Roy Garland seem like quixotic figures now, there are other possibilities which are more likely to manifest themselves in North Down than in Belfast.

Allow me to explain. The North Down constituency is the wealthiest in the north by some distance, and contains within it a very large concentration of liberal unionists. These people have a liking for quirky independent candidates. They are also prepared to vote in large numbers for Catholic candidates – historically Alliance, but there would be some logic in UCUNF trying its hand with a Catholic candidate. (It’s the Shaun Bailey strategy. There is little evidence that Shaun Bailey appeals much to black Londoners, but he just might appeal to liberal-minded white folks who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more.)

This mix of factors has led to some delicious unpredicability in North Down politics. In the latter half of the 1980s the area was the major stomping ground for the Ulster Tories, which makes sense. Then the good burghers elected Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, who not only surrounded himself with Conor Cruise O’Brien and veterans of the British and Irish Communist Organisation, but on being elected to Westminster promptly declared his hitherto unsuspected leftwing sympathies and proposed to take the Labour whip. (They didn’t let him.) Big Bob was then unseated by Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has been a most assiduous supporter of New Labour. The thinking now is that the UCUNF lash-up, with its appeal to pan-UK unionism, may have a strong appeal in the area.

But there is another, admittedly hypothetical possibility. Up in Derry, PSF have been running a unionist outreach programme for years, but this seems to encompass relatively few Prods from the estates and rather a lot of businessmen and clergy. And in fact, it is the business class who are most open to the all-Ireland context, and just might be willing to look south. One might argue that, if Fianna Fáil were serious about their northern mission, they wouldn’t be farting about in Derry and Downpatrick talking to clapped-out SDLP types, but heading to Bangor and Holywood to make a business case for a united Ireland. Then again, maybe FF isn’t fit for purpose, and you would need it to be a particular sort of candidate to make the right impact there. I believe Declan Ganley is between political projects at the moment…

Fun and games on the Hill

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What’s been going on at Stormont this last wee while? Well, newly elected House of Commons Speaker John Bercow was just in town, meeting Assembly Speaker Willie Hay (DUP, Foyle) and apparently picking up some tips on refereeing civilised debates. Given the standard of debate at Stormont, the uncharitable may say this is a bit like getting driving lessons from Stevie Wonder, but Willie is a pleasant enough chap and it never hurts to be a bit sociable. Let’s chalk this down to some devolved diplomacy on Bercow’s part.

On a less elevated note, there’s been some rather unimpressive agitprop from the DUP on the Hill. We’ve seen the party hinting again at an “Ulster jobs for Ulster workers” position – which, given the illegality of such, is just pure kite-flying – but this sort of thing didn’t really make much impact in yesterday’s migrant workers debate. That debate, incidentally, saw friend of this blog Jim Shannon (DUP, Strangford) make the following pithy intervention:

Tha raisin fer this wus that fer tha real cumin tha tither o’ migrant woarkers intae oor cummunitees, ther haes tae be tiem aside fer takkin things iver tae heft tae git aa’ troo unnerstaunin. Aa’ wus at tha lanch o’ tha Oardinary Leevs exhibitshun at Stormoont fer migrant woarkers, whuch showed tha impoartin an vital roul they play in oor modrin society.

Aa’ hae aften visited Poalish groups an ither migrant woarkers leevin in tha Airdes area, whau left Englan an whau noo wroucht in Huddleston Engineerin’ an in tha fish factories an they aw play an impoartin pert in oor woarkforce.

And I am certain that the Polish and Lithuanian workers in Jim’s constituency are glad to have his understanding.

From the heights of Ulster Scots rhetoric, let us descend to the level of low slapstick, in the forms of DUP young Turks Alex Easton (North Down) and Jonathan Craig (Lagan Valley), who had tabled a motion with the inspiring title “Protestant Student Exodus”, which read as follows:

Proposed: That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to bring forward measures to attract, and ensure that, students from a Protestant background are encouraged to opt for universities in Northern Ireland as their first choice, rather than universities in the rest of the United Kingdom.

To propose student selection by religious quota is, of course, totally illegal and wouldn’t survive thirty seconds of a Section 75 audit. But the real business of this was that, having secured 90 minutes of Assembly debating time, our dynamic duo were proposing to bellyache at length about how Queens and the NUU are bastions of republicanism, where no Protestant student dares to tread.

It’s balderdash, of course. Back in the days when Peter Weir and Simon Hamilton, to name but two, were students at Queens you couldn’t bloody dig them out of the Students Union. They were there every day, hatching their plots in smokeless rooms over glasses of orange juice. Cold house, forsooth. The mythology dies hard, though, as we heard when Alex Easton made an appearance on Talk Back. Unfortunately for Alex, Wendy played a dirty trick on him and brought in an academic who had studied this question and knew the facts and figures. He reckoned that Protestant students were slightly more likely than Catholic students to head to Britain because a) we were talking mostly about the Protestant middle class, who are more likely to be able to afford it, b) to improve their prospects in the job market and c) to get out of Norn Iron for a few years. In all the studies that were done, sectarianism didn’t show up as a serious determinant.

And if you thought that made Alex sound a bit of a doughhead, he had an even tougher time in the Assembly:

Mr Speaker: The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose the motion and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members will have five minutes.

Rev Dr Robert Coulter: On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Members in whose names the motion is tabled are not present. What is your ruling?

Mr Speaker: Members who table motions have a responsibility to be in the House to move them. I will move on to the next item of business.

Mr Easton, I take it that you have an explanation for the House as to why you were not in your place to move the motion.

Mr Easton: I apologise to the House, but I was in the middle of a radio interview that went on longer than I had anticipated.

Mr Speaker: I hear what the Member says, but I must tell him and the whole House that his first responsibility is to the House. I intend to move on to the next item of business.

I warned the whole House quite a while ago that, if Ministers or Members are not in their place to move the business of the House or private Members’ business, that business will fall; and this morning the motion fell. It is no fault of the House that that has happened. However, Members need to know their responsibility to the House and to the business of the House.

Now that is a slick bit of chairing from Willie Hay – I doubt that John Bercow himself could have done better. Alex looked far from gruntled about the situation – there was no word of where the seconder, Jonathan Craig, had got to, but I believe the traffic in Lisburn was hectic.

There’s also more news from the wacky world of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, and this has to do with candidate selection for the next Westminster election. The process here is that each constituency association of both of UCUNF’s affiliated parties will pick a candidate, and then the two parties will negotiate over who gets which constituency. But the South Belfast Unionist Assocation has thrown a monkey wrench in the works by sending a letter to Sir Reggie urging him to agree a unionist unity candidate with the DUP. The Beeb’s Mark Devenport writes:

On a separate matter, the move by South Belfast Ulster Unionists to propose a unionist unity candidate in the constituency has the potential to unravel the UUP’s understanding with the Conservatives. The DUP warmly welcomed the initiative but I suspect the UUP leadership will knock the association back.

Apropos of which, Chekov is less than impressed:

It still hasn’t dawned on some members of the Ulster Unionist party, has it? The Rubicon has been crossed, bridges have been burned. Whichever cliché you wish to employ, its underlying truth is the same – the only viable future which the UUP can contemplate is with its new Conservative partners.

A nonnegotiable principle of the Conservative / UUP pact is that it must be rolled out across every constituency in Northern Ireland.

The purpose of UCUNF is not to add to an alphabet soup of interchangeable unionist sects. It is designed to offer genuine participation in UK politics to ALL the people in Northern Ireland. It cannot operate only where there is a resounding ‘prod’ majority…

But rather than getting on with picking a young, enthusiastic contender, in order to join Conservative selection Peter McCann in front of the joint committee, the South Belfast association would rather cede the seat to Jimmy Spratt or a similar DUPe Neanderthal, if the report is to be believed!

Chekov is of course correct that the whole idea of unionist unity candidates is incompatible with the logic behind the Forza Nuova – whether Sir Reggie will allow himself to be bound by logic is another matter. The ongoing situation in North Down with Lady Sylvia has never been resolved, and Reggie is likely to come under some pressure as regards Fermanagh – though Fermanagh UUs have no great love for the turncoat Arlene Foster, which might help him slightly.

Anyway, I don’t know about young and enthusiastic candidates. One of the selling points of UCUNF was supposed to be that the Tory lash-up would enable a slate of fresh faces to be put forward – some young people, a woman or two, perhaps even a Catholic. This would, as an added bonus, be a mechanism for excluding dinosaurs like David McNarry. But it will be interesting to see who emerges in South Belfast. In the absence of Gimpo, who would have to give up his ministry and Stormont berth, the obvious contender is Bram Stoker, who may well have the rare ability to hoover up some votes in Sandy Row and Donegall Pass, but is not exactly the sort of person you’d be comfortable introducing to Dave Cameron. Basil McCrea might be just about passable, but one expects the Tories would look askance at a McNarry or a Stoker or a Fred Cobain turning up on their benches. Short of raising Big Frankie Millar from the dead, it’s hard to imagine who would be a less comfortable fit with the metrosexual New Tories.

If it’s any comfort, the DUP too is a little jittery about parliamentary selection. Theoretically, the party is supposed to be getting rid of double jobbing, but the existing Westminster team look like having another run-out. Notable is North Antrim, where the octogenarian Dochtúir Mór plans to stick around. This is a transparent response to the Traditional Unionist threat – Sunny Jim might have fancied taking on Ian Óg, but the big man looks like an opponent too far. There are also rumblings from East Belfast, where Robbo had signalled his intention to stand down, with the appointment of local MLA Robin Newton as junior minister being an obvious gambit to raise the profile of his successor. Yet Robin Newton is sort of the David McNarry of the DUP – he’s been around a very long time while making very little impact, while being well enough thought of in some quarters that he’s always on the ticket. Not even Robin would claim he’s likely to set the world alight, and a three-cornered fight between him, Reggie and Naomi Long, with the TUV as the joker in the pack, would have been fascinating. But if Robbo runs again he’ll win, and East Belfast will be as dull as ever.

Finally, what of the TUV? They don’t look like much as a party, but the existential question they pose to the DUP is a real one. Big Ian’s strategy, for almost all of his political career, was above all else to make sure that nobody could call him a lundy. Now, for a huge chunk of the traditional DUP base, the DUP is the Lundy Party. That’s why Robbo is so jittery in the face of a seemingly ramshackle enemy – just remember how the youthful Ian Paisley and William Beattie, with nothing but their bibles and their rhetoric, wreaked havoc on the Unionist Party in the 1960s.

The question will be one of what the TUV decides to do. At this point, Sunny Jim has signalled that he’ll only stand Westminster candidates in safe unionist seats – his focus is on the next Stormont election. But the Euro-result raises an interesting question. Diane Dodds did the whole tubthumping act of how the enemies of Ulster couldn’t be allowed to top the poll, but the voters didn’t listen. Why? Maybe, given our federal political system, lots of Prods are now so inured to having the enemies of Ulster in government that Diane’s pitch didn’t scare them as it might have done ten years ago. Alternatively, and this isn’t at all inconsistent with the foregoing, your Traditional Unionist voters just hate the DUP so much that they don’t give a stuff about the Provos getting in. If that’s the case, why not stand in South Belfast or Fermanagh? If you’re a real hardline unionist, why should you care about the electoral prospects of Jimmy Spratt or Arlene Foster? If UCUNF can offer the voters of those areas the chance to support pan-UK unionism, shouldn’t the TUV offer them the chance to punish the lundies at the ballot box? I merely make the suggestion.

Defectors go leor!

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It’s a funny thing, but defectors have been much in the news the past week. Not one defector, but three. And not one of them without some kind of twist in the tale. And, wait, till I tell you, defections may be common in the south – one thinks of the late Nollaig de Brún and his multiple party allegiances – but much less so in the north. That’s why Billy Leonard is such an unusual figure.

First up is the news that Fianna Fáil, its support crumbling south of the border, has optimistically been attempting to establish a base in South Down. This has involved a high-powered delegation from HQ, including justice minister Dermot Ahern and former Ceann Comhairle Rory O’Hanlon, as well as uncrowned king of Connacht Éamon Ó Cuív, who talked about how his grandfather, President de Valera, had a long-standing connection to the constituency, having been elected there in the 1920s. One may wish to take this sentimentality at face value, and one may note that Ahern (from Dundalk) and Dr Death O’Hanlon (from Carrickmacross) are border deputies with a natural interest in what happens next door. But it’s hard not to see this stellar line-up as representing a big vote of no confidence in the long-term future of the South Down and Londonderry Party. Consider also that the Soldiers of Fortune already have a cumann in Derry, and add a little piquancy in terms of the near forty-year animus between the SDLP and the Blaneyites. Maybe Durko and Attwood should pause awhile in thought.

Anyway, lending some tone to proceedings was FF’s most prominent local figure, ex-councillor Colonel Harvey Bicker OBE, formerly of the Ulster Unionist Party and the British army. Now, Harvey defected to FF some time ago, and is currently an appointee to President McAleese’s Council of State, but he retains an interest in South Down politics and is now rather ostentatiously in favour of the all-Ireland context. Whether such an eccentric figure is symptomatic of anything is another matter. My view is that there must be something in the water around that neck of the woods, which is also the stomping ground of ex-UUP man Henry Reilly, who currently sits as a UKIP representative on Newry and Mourne council.

Another councillor to make the news has been Belcoo man Domhnall Ó Cobhthaigh, who has left PSF to join the Socialist Party. (More here.) At least we can say that Domhnall hasn’t acted for purposes of electoral advancement, and he has resigned his seat on Fermanagh council, rather honourably reckoning that, as a co-opted rather than elected councillor, he couldn’t possibly claim the seat as his. I wish Domhnall well in his new environment, and obviously this is a feather in the cap for the SP, but it does puzzle me a little.

Yes, on one level, I can see it. Domhnall is a socialist, and wants to be in a party with its socialist identity front and centre, and the SP is certainly that. He feels that Gerry has moved to the right, and I can’t disagree with him there. He admires Joe Higgins, which is certainly understandable. And I can see the mechanics – he’s grown disillusioned, and will have been talking to the SP’s Paul Dale, who’s been a council candidate himself in Enniskillen. And yet… you know, when a councillor goes independent, as some PSF councillors have done recently, it’s one thing, but going over to another party is a definite statement of intent. And what has me scratching my head is that there are more obvious places for a disillusioned socialist republican to go. Of late, éirígí have been pleased with picking up councillors Louise Minihan of Dublin and Barry Monteith of Dungannon; below the elected reps level, I know of some activists over the last wheen of years who have gone to Sinn Féin Eile or to the Communist Party, either of which makes sense.

Having read what Domhnall said in the Impartial Reporter, I’m not much wiser. He is convincing when talking about his disillusionment; his statements on the neoliberal politics of the Assembly are the standard SP boilerplate. What I’m wondering is whether he’s still a republican. The point about the SP is that it’s the most determinedly anti-republican formation on the Irish left, and has spent decades defining itself against “left republicanism”. If Domhnall thinks you can be a republican in the SP, he’s in for a quare gunk. On the other hand, if he’s been convinced by the SP’s hallmark policy of the “socialist federation of Britain and Ireland”, that’s well and good for him, but I don’t see it having much purchase in rural Fermanagh. Well, we shall see, and I look forward to hearing more from Domhnall.

Finally, we have to take a look at Ian Parsley (not Paisley), the fresh-faced young Alliance councillor in North Down who was Alliance’s candidate in the recent Euro-election, but has now defected to the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, via its Tory component. His rationale is that this allows him to plug into UK-wide politics, which is a bit cheeky, since he surely knows that many Alliance people are card-carrying members of the Liberal Democrats. The word is that this fits in nicely with UCUNF’s small headache of finding a candidate in North Down, since the sitting Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, is a stalwart Labour supporter and has been notably sceptical of the whole UCUNF boondoggle. Counting against Ian, however, is his rash declaration that he isn’t actually a unionist. This may be a slight disability if you want to win the endorsement of the Unionist Party.

All I can say about that is that I’m glad I’m not a North Down voter. The prospect of a battle of the young fogies between Ian Parsley and Peter Weir is almost too grim to contemplate.

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