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

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.


  1. robert said,

    March 11, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    Well at least they don’t call themselves the Conservative and Unionist National Tradition.

  2. March 11, 2010 at 9:03 pm

    Thanks for the link about manifestations of small-group psychosis in the atheist milieu. One thing that drives me up the wall about the Marxist milieu is that, on one hand, there’s this level of “hate speech” between socialists that you’ve identified; and on the other, this attitude that “the socialists” must keep up a united front against those nasty “reformists”, “small business owners”, “communalists”, “backwards religionists”, etc. It’s almost like a hillbilly family, rather than a political current.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      March 11, 2010 at 10:36 pm

      I think it shows that small group psychosis can turn up in just about any small group. And it’s not just a function of size. The Bordigists used to be quite big, and it didn’t stop them being a hardened sect.

      • WorldbyStorm said,

        March 12, 2010 at 6:44 pm

        Yeah, I think there’s something in that Doloras. It’s pretty depressing.

    • De Northside Socialist said,

      March 12, 2010 at 8:56 pm

      Unfortunately, that may in fact be rather unfair to hillbilly families….

  3. March 12, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Would Julian’s only-gay-in-the-province status be fatal for his campaign? Would a First/Deputy First Minister partnership of Julian Simmons and Gerry “From The Telly” Kelly fly with electorate?

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      March 12, 2010 at 8:10 pm

      It might, if you could get in Logie and Frank as junior ministers. It would be more fun than End To End, anyway.

  4. March 15, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    […] “Hands off southern trade unions!” By DublinDilettante This is more Splintered Sunrise’s province than mine (pun diplomatically unintended), but the Republic’s increasingly assailed […]

  5. March 24, 2010 at 1:34 am

    […] 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 […]

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