Well, the Euro-election in a couple of weeks should be vastly more interesting than usual in the north, thanks to an unpredictability I can’t remember seeing before. Remember that, since direct elections to Strasbourg began in 1979, whilst our original three MEPs (Paisley, Hume and Kilclooney) have all retired, never has a sitting MEP lost his seat. So in the normal run of things we would expect the incumbents, Bairbre de Brún, Jim Allister and Jim Nicholson (in Devo style, the latter shall now be known as Jim-1 and Jim-2) to coast to re-election. This has been complicated, of course, by Jim-1 having defected from the DUP to assume leadership of the Prodiban insurgency. Which in turn has necessitated the DUP standing against him. Someone is going to lose out, and I’m not sure who.
And yet, there appears to be even less interest among the punters than usual. Nor is there much sign of pavement-pounding – apart from a couple of bedraggled Traditional Unionists, I haven’t even encountered any canvassers. On the other hand, the posters are up, and everybody is smiling. Jim-2, running this time under the banner of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force, is beaming from ear to ear. The DUP’s Diane Dodds is smiling, and looking 20 years younger – are these recycled posters, or has she been hitting the Boots counter? Bairbre de Brún has that faintly severe smile that will no doubt ring bells with her former pupils. Jim-1, a man who makes Nigel Dodds and Michael McGimpsey look like a pair of jolly larrikins, has managed a clenched-teeth rictus that could sort of pass for a smile. But what’s been annoying my brain has been the posters for the SDLP’s Alban Maginness. For a moment, I didn’t even know it was Alban. For one thing, he’s decommissioned the Groucho moustache; for another, he looks to have been hitting the Grecian 2000. But the really striking thing is the big cheesy grin he has plastered across his bake. If you look at him from one angle, you’d think he was advertising a stand-up comedy night; from another, he just looks pissed. I preferred him when he was grumpy.
But to get back to the substance, the only outcome I would lay money on is Bairbre being returned; she may even get in at the top of the poll. She’s lucky too that the dissidents’ cunning plan of getting Colin Duffy on the ballot paper didn’t transpire, not because I think he would have dented her vote, but because his presence in the contest would have raised awkward questions. We can also pass briefly, in the category of pleasant young men without a chance, over the Greens’ Steven Agnew and Alliance’s Ian Parsley, though I still maintain that Ian’s candidacy is a shameless bid to nick the votes of dyslexic DUP supporters. It’s on the unionist side where you have the imponderables.
In fact, it’s been interesting that it took so long for the DUP to select a candidate, and when they did, they didn’t go for one of the party’s big hitters. Officially, this has to do with all of the big hitters double- or triple-jobbing between Westminster, Stormont and their local councils. Since Diane lost her Assembly seat and is now reduced to a seat on Belfast Corporation, she is available for European duty. Unofficially, while a number of the big hitters were canvassed, there was a marked reluctance to go up against Allister. The local media like to refer to Jim-1 as a formidable campaigner, but that’s a bit of a euphemism. The DUP has a big share of country folks, who might be thinking of what happens when a dog corners a badger – no matter how big and nasty the dog, it invariably comes off worst. Jim Allister doesn’t fight fair, and after decades in the DUP leadership, he knows exactly where the bodies are buried.
There’s also a political aspect to this. What Jim-1 has been saying throughout this campaign is identical to what Big Ian used to say, only he’s left out the baroque theology. The important thing is that, up until his last year in the leadership, the Dochtúir Mór never once let himself be outflanked on the right. He staked out his position as the voice of guldering supremacism, and it stood him in good stead. Now listen to Diane Dodds, and you’ll know what an incoherent message is. She’s banging the drum for the importance of a unionist topping the poll – of course, in a PR election, it doesn’t matter who tops the poll, but as Diane explains, it’s deeply symbolic. She’s also dusted off the rhetoric of the DUP’s “Stop Sinn Féin” campaign from 1985, and is telling us how vital it is to defeat the enemies of Ulster – you know, the same enemies of Ulster her other half is in coalition with. Jim-1 has a number of electoral disabilities, notably the absence of a party machine, but he does have the benefit of a simple and unambiguous message. He’s also been quite prepared to mine the seam of Peter and Iris’ Westminster expenses, and to ask the impolite question of whether we want the Paisley dynasty, the Robinson dynasty and the McCrea dynasty to be supplemented by the Dodds dynasty. Kim Jong-il, how are you.
Now, let’s take a little look at the other runners and riders. Last time out, the SDLP had a torrid time of it. After St John Hume’s retirement, they went with the young and clever but ultimately unconvincing Martin Morgan, and lost 100,000 votes. Alban Maginness is a much more substantial figure, possibly the best of the candidates on a purely personal level. What’s more, having at least eight kids of voting age, he’s bound to do well in North Belfast. He will be aware that even last time, Morgan was only a biscuit behind Jim-2 on the first count, and Nicholson required 40,000 transfers from the DUP to push him over the top – a surplus that won’t be there this time. Could a split unionist vote see him squeeze through the middle? Not impossible, but a combined nationalist vote of maybe 43% is still a long way short of two quotas, so he’s facing an uphill struggle. (We’re also seeing the five-yearly ritual whereby SDLP councillors in places like Cookstown and Portaferry try to explain to bemused nationalists why it’s important to be in the Party of European Socialists. The Lord loves a trier.)
And finally, what of Jim-2? The silent man has managed to put in twenty years in Strasbourg without many people noticing, based on a substantial first-preference tally from the farming constituency and a great big whack of DUP transfers. He may actually be the most likely to lose out, if he drops below third on the first count. The big uncertainty here is whether UCUNF and Prodiban voters transfer to each other on a big scale. Mind you, even the first-count results on the unionist side are impossible to predict.
So there you have it. We’re entering uncharted waters and, although I have a sneaking feeling Jim Allister may do well, we don’t have a compass. Ah well, it’ll all become clearer soon enough.
Fer mair wittins, gae til 1690 An’ All Thon.