1 April 2015 Edition
Every vote will count
'Big House' unionist parties form election pact to stop Sinn Féin
While he was Ulster Unionist Party leader, UDR veteran Tom Elliott described republicans as ‘the scum of Sinn Féin’ and the Tricolour as ‘the flag of a foreign country’
THE NEWS that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have reached a deal to run a single candidate in four of the North’s Westminster constituencies for the 7 May general election has left commentators and political opponents bemused. Seen as a unity pact, observers see the electoral pact as a good deal for the DUP but most are puzzled as to what the UUP will gain.
The SDLP again ruled out a nationalist pact with Sinn Féin – describing any such deal as “entrenching sectarianism” rather than fighting conservative unionism. It seems the SDLP is effectively endorsing the DUP/UUP deal as three of the four constituencies have two Sinn Féin MPs and a strong contender in Gerry Kelly for North Belfast.
The four electoral contests in question are East Belfast, North Belfast, Fermanagh & South Tyrone with Michelle Gildernew as MP and Newry & Armagh, where Mickey Brady is looking to replace Conor Murphy as MP.
Clearly the East Belfast election where the DUP (humiliated after leader Peter Robinson lost the seat to Alliance’s Naomi Long in 2010 in the wake of revelations about his wife’s affair with a younger lover) is a must-win election for the main unionist party.
As well as being a political humiliation for Robinson and the DUP it was also a blow to their machismo and DUP arrogance.
It was a point illustrated when Robinson retorted to Long’s reaction that East Belfast was “no longer a fair fight”.
Robinson growled back: “Dry your tears away – you’re going out.”
But it seems the DUP is not overly confident of regaining the seat under its own banner and wanted a clear run from the UUP.
• Gerry Kelly MLA is the only real challenger to DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds
In North Belfast, Sinn Féin is running a strong campaign with one of the party’s chief political strategists, Gerry Kelly, confident that he can unseat DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds this time out.
Over the last three Westminster contests, Sinn Féin has eclipsed the SDLP and is now just over 2,200 votes behind the DUP.
The SDLP is on the electoral margins in this constituency. In 2010, it polled 4,500 votes and some of its own supporters are likely to back Kelly against Dodds, who has given minimal representation to his nationalist constituents.
On housing, Dodds has denied the chronic shortage of houses for nationalists, instead backing former housing minister Nelson McCausland’s attempts to manipulate the waiting lists.
As the demography of North Belfast changes, the insecurity of the DUP increases.
At its high point the unionist majority in the constituency was around 15,000 when the UUP’s Cecil Walker triumphed in 1992.
Dodds won the seat for the DUP in 2001 with a 6,000 majority that has shrunk ever since.
Even unionist commentators believe that, even with a clear run, Danny Kennedy, the lone UUP minister in the Executive, will not make any inroads into an 18,000-plus Sinn Féin vote.
• Unionist commentator Alex Kane says it's "50/50" in Fermanagh & South Tyrone
In Fermanagh & South Tyrone, former Ulster Unionist Party Director of Communications Alex Kane reckons that Tom Elliott’s chances, even with the DUP out of the race, are “50/50 at best”.
Elliott is a past County Grand Master of the Orange Order in Fermanagh, Assistant Secretary to the Grand Lodge of Ireland and an 18-year veteran with the Ulster Defence Regiment/Royal Irish Regiment.
It will come as no surprise to observers that Elliott’s record in the constituency will galvanise nationalists.
In 2011, after his election to the Assembly and while leader of the UUP, he referred to the Irish Tricolour as the flag of a “foreign country” and went on to describe republicans as “the scum of Sinn Féin”.
He also said he wouldn’t attend a gay pride parade or watch a GAA match.
• Martina Anderson MEP, Michelle Gildernew MP and Gerry Adams TD
Reacting to the news of the pact, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew (who won by a margin of four votes) stressed that neither she nor Sinn Féin takes voters for granted.
She promised that the party will fight for every vote and would fight the election on the party’s record in opposing welfare cuts, fighting fracking and delivering for farmers and those involved in the tourist industry.
“Also,” she said, “the people of this constituency have not been afraid of making the hard choices and have elected republican prisoners since the 1950s.
“Their support for Bobby Sands during the 1981 Hunger Strike when they elected him as their MP is something that makes me very proud and honoured; I know that piece of history is a motivating factor for the nationalist electorate.
“So if Tom Elliott is the unionist unity candidate that’s fair enough Sinn Féin is up for the fight and never has it been more true that every single vote will count.”