Local spat is convenient distraction

The Ulster Unionists in Fermanagh questioned the proposed co-option of a DUP nominee to replace a recently deceased DUP member of the Council. The point appeared to be a fair one. The Ulster Unionist concern rested on the nominee being a student, studying in Belfast. In a council were votes count, it is not unreasonable to desire a councillor who is more readily available to attend to council duties.

More cynically, however, the Ulster Unionists also may have sensed a chance to pick up a seat at the DUP’s expense. Without consensus, a by-election is to be held.

The DUP had every right to make its own choice of nominee for co-option. The Party is also to be commended for putting forward a young person who would gain valuable experience of political life, even in the small world of Northern Ireland local government.

Shame then that once the Ulster Unionists had forced a by-election the young man was unceremoniously dropped. The by-election candidate is to be Arlene Foster, a popular local politician and current Minister in Northern Ireland’s Stormont administration. An ex-Ulster Unionist, Mrs Foster is likely to be the DUP standard bearer for Westminster when a General Election is called sooner or later.

The DUP would be credited with some principle had they stuck by their nominee in the face of a by-election. That the DUP lacks the confidence in the electability of their nominee in an open contest makes the Ulster Unionists look as if they had a point in challenging the simple co-option.

In not running a candidate, the only Party to score a positive political point is the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). TUV points to the UUP and DUP spat as an ‘unseemly dispute’ and the by-election as a ‘venture capable of strengthening Sinn Fein’. The by-election result will tell.
Leaving Fermanagh, a wider perspective might consider the actions of the DUP showing deep uncertainty in its forward path. Bringing in a big hitter for the role may prove a winning tactic, but it lacks longer-term strategy. Mrs Foster is not just seeking a dual mandate, her Party’s ambition would have her hold three political roles.

Along with its own established heavy-hitters, the defection of a small number of high profile and electable Ulster Unionists (of which Mrs Foster is one) has provided the DUP with a near monopoly of political personalities within Unionism. With little political difference between the DUP and UUP this matters greatly. The move by the UUP to create ties with the Conservatives may be an effort to seek some differentiation, but little on the main point of sharing power with Sinn Fein etc: tactical nuances rather than any points of principle separate the two.

The reliance on personalities is not a Northern Irish phenomenon. Mick Hume in spiked identifies an international trend: “we are entering an era, not of two- or even multi-party politics, so much as no-party politics.” In this context, personalities matter. Hume also points to the downside of this for political life: “As the gap between the public and the political class widens, political loyalties become more arbitrary and uncertain.” Northern Ireland is not immune to such trends.

Add the volatility and uncertainty of unionist unease at Sinn Fein in Government and it is easy to see why the DUP places reliance on personality over principle. The DUP is not strong enough to proceed with any candidate in Fermanagh at a local council level; it must use the political capital of the popular Mrs Foster.

The spat between the DUP and UUP on the rights and wrongs of a by-election is a distraction from the fact that there is little to separate the two parties. Neither is currently addressing the considerable unease among unionists on the subject of transfer of policing and justice responsibilities from Westminster to the local administration.

In the short term the continued reliance on big personality may deliver another win for the DUP. But being big is not enough in an arbitrary and uncertain political world. Winning is good; but winning comes with a price. While the two main Unionist Parties squabble, the question being increasingly asked by unionists is ‘who’s paying?’

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