16 January 1997 Edition

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Unionists will unite for elections

BY MICHEAL MacDONNCHA

Last week political news from the North was dominated by disagreements within nationalism over the forthcoming Westminster elections; this week it was the turn of unionists to begin their inter-party battles.

The battles are being fought on two fronts - around the talks at Stormont and around the issue of unionist representation in key constituencies. It is the desire of Paisley's DUP and Robert McCartney's UKUP to nip in the bud any challenge from the two loyalist fringe parties that lies behind the efforts to have them expelled from the talks. The DUP especially has reason to discredit the PUP and UDP wherever possible as the Paisleyites perceive the threat to their loyalist working-class vote.

``It was either the tooth fairy or the Combined Loyalist Military Command,'' said Bob McCartney in reference to responsibility for recent loyalist attacks. McCartney and Paisley's bid to get rid of the loyalists met with opposition from British ministers. The ministers' defence of the loyalists' presence exposed the hypocrisy of their exclusion of Sinn Féin.

Whatever the state of the ceasefires the loyalist parties received a mandate at last May's elections and have a right to be represented at the talks - and the same should apply to Sinn Féin which received a much greater electoral mandate.

In an article in the Irish News on 13 January Ken Maginnis got a dig in at the loyalist parties when he said that ``both traditions' would be faced in the election with a choice between ``the power of the ballot box and the power of the gun''. However, the real rivalry is between the UUP and the DUP. This was made more acute with the selection last week by the UUP of a candidate to contest the Foyle constituency. The UUP have never stood against the DUP's Gregory Campbell in Foyle since the consituency was created in 1983.

It is the new constituency of West Tyrone which is causing most grief between the DUP and UUP. Both have selected candidates and argue that the seat should be theirs. In North Belfast a DUP candidate could threaten the sitting UUP MP Cecil Walker.

Bad blood there certainly is between the two main unionist parties but their relationship is more remarkable for the co-operation they have achieved over the years than for their rows. Foyle is a perfect example as there is a clear nationalist majority and no hope of a unionist seat yet for 13 years they have not split the unionist vote. There is no threat to the present arrangement of the DUP standing aside to let Ken Maginnis win Fermanagh-South Tyrone and the UUP doing likewise in Mid-Ulster to keep Willie McCrea in. The spats over the other constituencies will likely be sorted out soon when Paisley and Trimble meet to reach their electoral `understanding'.

Sinn Féin's Mid-Ulster representative Francie Molloy argues that the gains made by nationalists west of the Bann in the Forum elections could be carried into this Westminster election if the nationalist parties took a leaf out of the unionist book. Such nationalist unity depends on a willingness from the SDLP leadership.

Unionist unity against nationalists and the undemocratic first-past-the-post system works heavily in their favour. Under this voting system nationalists in general and Sinn Féin voters in particular are under-represented. It leads to anomalies like loyalists voting SDLP to put Gerry Adams out of West Belfast in 1992. As a letter-writer to the Irish Times on Wednesday said:

``Everyone is entitled to representation, election pacts or otherwise, and UDA supporters should not have to vote for Dr Joe Hendron.''

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