Recent events in Northern Ireland have raised the possibility that there may be an Assembly election before a Westminster election. Depending on how current talks at Hillsborough and elsewhere progress, and for other electoral factors, it may not be Sinn Fein that seeks an election either before or at the same time as the Westminster poll.
For broad analysis on the state of the individual unionist parties by far the best has been that of the blogger Turgon on SluggerOToole. The recent meeting at Hatfield House between the Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson, and leading representatives of the DUP and UUP has created a great deal of debate on the nirvana of ‘unionist unity’. We are told the Hatfield House talks were about the UUP and DUP, and Conservatives, gaining some greater understanding in respect of future elections. Generally, however, the impact of the host party (the Conservatives) on elections is not discussed in detail. Perhaps this is because the Conservatives and the UUP are treated as one: that is a mistake; they remain two parties. Such a perspective misses the electoral questions arising from the Conservative and UUP non-merger.
Should an Assembly election to be held before Westminster elections there would be four Unionist parties in the fray as there is no agreement for Assembly elections between the UUP and Conservatives. This would probably kill any prospect of the UUP being the largest Unionist party: the two are separate parties as we are constantly told, so they will be two separate Assembly Parties.
So too may the Conservatives. Without an arrangement with the UUP for Assembly elections the local party would rightly expect to stand, and win a few seats. But the strength of the Conservative offer is that it brings so much more to local politics than money to a party (the UUP) whose financial fortunes are much diminished. Conservative electoral strength would be exposed before the benefit of the ‘win’ at Westminster (and even one seat other than North Down will be a win, so the bar is low). The Conservatives would lose momentum.
Conversely of course the arrangement for the General Election will mean that the Conservatives who might get elected in Northern Ireland will be fully taking the Conservative whip as part of that Party, while the UUP will be taking the whip by agreement. So if, and only by example, the UUP/Con arrangement delivers four seats and two of those are Conservative it means the UUP has in effect only two seats at Westminster. Influence with the Conservative Party is thus diminished, and independence constrained by taking the Conservative Whip. Added to which the UUP has provided an electoral base for the Conservatives to make further gains in the next elections on the calendar (Assembly), and in much better shape to eat into the UUP vote than if it had no Westmnister seats in Northern Ireland. This further dmininishes UUP ambitions of regaining ground to the DUP as the largest Assembly Party.
If Westminster elections are first, in the context of a hung Parliament the two main unionist parties would be in a much stronger position with no pre-agreement with the Conservative Party. Obligations generated prior to the election severely restrain the capacity for the unionist parties to play their best hand.
It is hard to see how strategists within the DUP would not have anticipated these scenarios, or that the UUP could be so detached as to not even think about them.
Which is why any notion of talks at Hatfield being on ‘unity’ needs to be treated with caution. There can be no doubt that the Conservatives as a Party would have been fishing for DUP ideas on the future and specifically for indicators on what would happen in the event of a hung Parliament. The DUP would be similarly probing the Conservatives. The only thing on the Conservative leadership’s mind at the moment is ‘seats’. This gives the unionist parties a strong position prior to the election, or it would if the UUP was not already tied to the Conservatives.
All this speculation centres on considerations of electoral mathematics that only the timings/outcomes of the elections will prove. If a Westminster election is first, and if the Conservatives gain a majority of anything over 30 then both unionist parties will be largely irrelevant, and Northern Ireland as far down the agenda as events will allow. Which means short-term interest may be Westminster, but for Unionism there must be greater focus on Stormont.
That brings us to wider speculation of other talks and fevered speculation on any perceived signals that build on this story. Within the context of all of the above, a merger of the UUP and DUP is by far the more likely and electorally sensible in terms of unionist ‘unity’, particularly in respect of the Assembly elections. The same sort of issues arise. This would have to be a merger and not a pact, because it is about Party and not political designation in d’Hondt. It is the largest Party that takes the First Minister role. Something less would be enough to extract maximum value from a hung Parliament, where ten to twelve Unionist seats represent the difference. Timing will be everything.
There is a definite sense that something is stirring among unionists in Northern Ireland. It may be an interesting political Spring. Will it be a new Spring for Unionism?