Month: January 2010

Unionist Spring?

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?

One Man’s Call

There is little honesty with adultery, not least towards the spouse who is unaware of the affair. It is a web of lies. The web of Iris Robinson grew complex: casual sex mixed with personal greed. Having persuaded others to provide £50,000 for the business of her young friend, she then seems to have decided that she should be rewarded with £5,000 cash. At this point, a quiet affair developed all the potential for financial scandal.

Does anyone seriously suggest that Iris Robinson would have told Peter Robinson all the details about her £5,000 kick-back, or her intention at some point to keep substantially more. The meetings, the go-between, the texts? Dishonesty underlies this story at every level.

Peter Robinson would not be the first husband who wanted to believe and protect his wife, or chose what to believe at face value because it offered a pathway to quiet resolution of the issues at hand: especially when the wife has a history of depression.

Any investigation may well find Peter Robinson clear of wrong-doing; unless there are more revelations to come. The only person who might be able to tell the whole story is Iris Robinson, and we have learned enough to imagine that not even she may not be he most reliable source of information on the facts.

The big question is now political: can Peter Robinson survive as First Minister?

If the answer was based on known facts alone, then more than likely yes.

However, leadership demands that any showing of emotional vulnerability must be balanced with strength and resolution in the face of adversity. Leaders must be first in control of themselves to be in control of events, and to be able to respond appropriately and proportionally.

While emotional vulnerability may elicit some public sympathy, alone it promotes context not answers. A managed interview that is not accompanied with a detailed Q&A for the press which addresses wider issues that a short statement and the immediacy of a ‘surprise’ statement does not permit, questions will always remain. Each subsequent interview with Peter Robinson offers a snippet more that leaves a sense that there is more to the story even though not a great deal more is revealed.

Talk of the ‘Robinson brand’ in the media seems to be centred on the relative power of the Robinson family; relating that family’s political position in the context of the Paisley family, and discussion of dynasties.  There may be a common idea of how the Robinsons regarded themselves, and there is no doubt that many in the DUP have huge respect for Robinson’s political antenna and drive. But out there, among the public, is there anything that has happened over the past year, from expenses to more recent revelations, that doesn’t confirm a reserved and quietly negative view of the Robinsons?  Was there really broad public acceptance of the presentation of the happy family, the dedication to public service alone, the righteousness of evangelical faith?

There has never been a great deal of goodwill or natural empathy towards Peter Robinson the person, outside his core supporters. Politically he stood in the shadow of Ian Paisley for so long that he had no particular personality: the succession to leadership was easily interpreted as a powerplay within the DUP. That was true without the recent scandal.

Politics is never black or white. Even if Peter Robinson were a weakened leader, he is the only option for the DUP at this point in time. The DUP needs Peter Robinson because he has the political experience and tactical expertise to make them do better at the polls in Westminster and the next Assembly and elections than they would without him. He keeps the lid on the tensions between the fundamentalist core DUP and those who would fundamentally seek to appeal to a wider voting base. For a Party that promotes itself on success, changing a leader so soon after Ian Paisley’s retirement could only question the direction and political sense of the DUP.  What vision? What values? What next?

Yes, recent events may mean bleeding a few more votes, but poor results could still be even worse without rigourous political management from now to election day. Yes, expenses and the more recent scandal has hurt the DUP. Yet, if a week is long time in politics Peter Robinson has plenty of time to reorganise, re-energise and rebound.

If there were more scandal, from elsewhere within the DUP, then the challenge for the DUP would be greater, and Peter Robinson’s return even more certain. For now though, it’s his decision; one man’s call, and the man doesn’t look as if he is going anywhere far from the First Minister’s office.

There will be an election in 2010

While generally there is nothing certain about the future, one 99.99% certainty for 2010 is a British Parliamentary Election.  Voting must take place before the summer, and the general consensus is for a May poll, though March may still be possible if Gordon Brown wants to avoid an unpromsing budget and go for it.parliament

thedissenter will resist entering a seat by seat analysis: that has been undertaken elsewhere, and there is sure to be more before the date of the election is finally announced.  At this point, selection of candidates is far from complete.  There are a number of factors which have the potential to impact on turnout and final count, and this post will look at those rather than enter fanciful prediction as others have done.

Most probably there will be two elections, again, in Northern Ireland – a nationalist one and a unionist one. There may be movements on the margins, but nothing of importance.  The greatest impact on the final count is most likely going to be the polling strength of the TUV and the way in which that Party’s presence, or not, affects the electoral balance in each constituency.

There is little on the horizon that is likely to impact on the Sinn Fein vote. Some might wishfully suggest that the woeful media management around family matters might wound Gerry Adams, and by association, Sinn Fein. Suzanne Breen spelled out the case in the Tribune.  Liam Clarke lays out the questions that linger in the Sunday Times.  Yet morality is hardly an issue for the Sinn Fein voter, happy to support a Party that has ‘yet to renounce its history of violence and terror, makes the vast majority of people here, sick to their stomachs’: that would be a majority of the total population, but it seems not the ‘nationalist’ population.

Of course things might change if there was a credible nationalist alternative to Sinn Fein, but there is not.

Republicans who hold onto their Marxist socialism etc, those who abide by the ‘physical force’ tradition, or those who hold onto both, are too small in number to have an electoral impact at this time.  Even so it seems likely that there will only be a marginal, though inconsequential, shrinkage of support for Sinn Fein, if not on a matter of morals then perhaps on the other issues within the Republican family which rumble along.

The SDLP is going through a prolonged leadership contest. If the contest is not inspiring, it is because the choice holds little promise. One has built a reputation on being hard on Loyalist paramilitaries (albeit without due care to Ministerial responsibilities) and making ignorant remarks about the Loyal Orders.  The other has proved adept at building on political opportunity in retaining his seat and building a strong and respected SDLP presence in South Belfast. Neither has excelled outside their respective constituencies.

Whether a harder nationalist line or greater organizational capacity, rural nationalism or metropolitan social democracy, is chosen by the SDLP, the May (or even March) election will give little time for a new leader to make much of a mark on the political landscape.  Bar opening statements of intent, the leadership contest seems entirely internal and lacking much rigour.

The SDLP will most probably hold its own in the coming election; not least because while it has little to offer by way of alternative to Sinn Fein, Sinn Fein is not in a place where it is able to build on past success and bury the SDLP. For now, the nationalist electorate is offered stale crusty policy from both parties which will result in a stalemate within that electorate.

There is a range of factors that make the election of much greater importance to Unionism.  The Westminster expenses story has exercised the Unionist community to a far greater extent that it has within nationalism. Movies, the “Swish Family Robinson” headline, and a perception that Unionist politicians are more likely to employ family members combined to offend a Unionist sensibility that  politicians are elected to serve their constituents’ interests and not their own self-interest.

To some extent the expenses issue gave the TUV’s Jim Allister his barn storming result at the European election in June 2009 – though DUP arrogance and UUP delusion probably played far a greater part.  Whether or not the residue of this debate continues to undermine current MPs is something to consider, but would be only one factor of many in determining constituency outcomes. Some of the heat of the expenses row will be removed by sitting MPs, such as Iris Robinson, not standing again.

The debate within Unionism of ‘unity’ candidates usefully detracts from the lack of any discernable policy that makes the Conservative/UUP electoral arrangements any great force for change in the forthcoming election.  It is hard to believe that any serious unionist politician would believe that not taking an opportunity to defeat a Sinn Fein candidate (as might present itself in Fermanagh South Tyrone) will play well with the wider unionist electorate.  Realistically it is only in Fermanagh South Tyrone that any agreement has the possibility of returning a Unionist candidate.  However, the Conservative commitment to stand in every constituency in the UK means it has no time for local sensibilities and no strategy or apparent interest in inflicting a loss on Sinn Fein.

In South Belfast there is little UUP constituency infrastructure to conduct a substantial canvas – and the Assembly poll showed little chance of an Ulster Unionist win.  Furthermore the sitting SDLP MP already represents a broadly ‘conservative’ sort of approach, and the Alliance candidate a more PC choice, that undermines any gain the Conservative Party would hope to achieve from the Catholic electorate in the constituency – not that the Conservative/UUP hierarchies would be so calculatingly sectarian in their final selection.

By far the largest impact on the election will the issue of multi-mandates, or double-jobbing as it is more commonly described. Of course the legislation to enforce sole mandates must complete its course through Parliament, but already the principle has had consequences.  Jeffrey Donaldson seems to have chosen Westminster over a Ministerial position in Stormont. Mark Durkan has chosen Westminster and initiated an SDLP Leadership election. Michael McGimpsey has cited commitment to Stormont for not putting his name forward in South Belfast.

More generally, the multi-mandate is more of a challenge for the DUP than the other Parties because it has a more MPs than any other Party.  It will mean new faces entering the political frame.  The DUP has been building profile for a number of their MLAs and Councillors, though perhaps circumstances will now accelerate advancement for a few.  ‘Knowing’ your politician is important. Name recognition makes a big difference at election time.  The DUP has also been hugely effective at building a constituency network. That should stand it in good stead. Its November conference was uplifting and rallied the troops, despite what might be viewed as setbacks in the previous year. The DUP enters the election in an entirely positive frame of mind.

A haphazard constituency presence and aging membership means the Ulster Unionist Party is less than able for this election.  This may be compensated by the Conservative Party’s money and campaigning expertise: though the Conservative Party seems to be overly relying on the newness of its entry into the electoral field to garner excitement around average and fairly unknown personalities. If it were a straight DUP v UUP/Conservative contest then the DUP would race home lengths ahead.

The TUV showing at the European election, with Jim Allister thrusting into the political arena with as good as a third of the unionist vote, fundamentally altered any consideration of future unionist electoral outcomes. Of all the political leaders within Unionism, Jim Allister has the biggest headache.  The has to perform in such a way as to be seen to make an advance on the European success, or make a case for why the performance is comparable.

Maximising the TUV vote would suggest the need to stand in all 18 constituencies. However, 66,000 votes spread across 18 constituencies will not win Westminster seats.  The TUV autumn conference was notable that many of the attendees were stalwart workers who once knocked doors, placed posters, and manned phones for the UUP and DUP in past elections. These are the members with drive and devotion who delivered at the European election, but are best focused rather than spread thinly.

Of course the Ulster Unionist Party and Conservatives are banking on the TUV standing to damage the DUP vote in their favour. But this is not Dromore or the European elections. There will be no transfers available for Westminster.

The TUV has already said it will not stand in Fermanagh South Tyrone or South Belfast, leaving the other parties to look less than able to put unionist interests first and foremost – even suggesting an agreed ‘non-Party’ candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone. The TUV will not stand in North Belfast. Where there is no chance of a Unionist winning the TUV may stand a candidate to hoover additional votes.  The toughest challenges are of course where a Unionist candidate will win, of one Party or another.

Jim Allister himself has declared his candidacy for North Antrim. East Antrim where he once had a strong base, Lagan Valley and Strangford are obvious targets.  Elsewhere he has the luxury of being able to wait to decide on whether it is worth standing a candidate at all. Failure across many constituencies might reflect poorly on TUV strength, while a win in one or two of the greater certainties will afford huge media attention.

In many seats there will not enough difference between the DUP and UUP canidates to matter which Party is elected, but where a TUV candidate will alter the electoral mathematics a judgment must be made as to whether  the TUV could make a positive difference.

The TUV might also be seen as merely spiteful in engaging in constituencies only to place pressure on the DUP’s sitting MP, especially when TUV support comes from across the unionist spectrum. And why give the UUP/Conservative arrangement a lucky pass? The UUP, and in particular the Conservative Party, will do the TUV no favours, and their joint inflexibility is the greatest reason why Fermanagh South Tyrone will most certainly be retained by Sinn Fein.  Why spread the TUV’s limited resources , only to give the UUP/Conservatives the benefit?

The TUV will most certainly be the election story in 2010, but it is too early to say how the Party will impact on the conduct of the campaign or the result. Failure across many constituencies might reflect poorly on TUV strength, while a win in one or two of the greater certainties will afford huge media attention.

So there will be an election (or two) in 2010. A lot can happen before Election Day. Nothing else is certain.