With the selection process nearing completion for Unionist Parties, debate continues in the media over the prospects for fielding ‘unity’ candidates in constituencies considered winnable for a single Unionist runner. While the former UUP leader and Tory peer Lord Trimble contends that there will be no unity candidates, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds puts forward the case for cooperation in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and South Belfast…
By Nigel Dodds MP MLA
In any group of people there will always be differences of emphasis and opinion and unionism is no different. However, the state of Northern Ireland came into being because unionists were able to put those differences aside and unite behind the shared cause of ensuring that our future remained within the United Kingdom. The idea that the men and women who signed the Covenant or who backed Carson’s Ulster Volunteers agreed on every aspect of policy is as ridiculous as the notion is now. However, they were able to unite behind a greater shared ideal and it is thanks to that determination and effort that we are able to enjoy our Britishness today.
Co-operation between the different unionist parties holds the prospect of that same principle working again today. We must all be able to agree that the more unionist voices representing Northern Ireland at Westminster the better. The car manufacturer Kia uses an advert based on the simple logic that a 7 year warranty is better than a 3 year one. Similarly having 12 unionist MPs at Westminster is better than 10.
It is a simple argument, but with an unavoidable logic to it. The perceived benefits of having a voice within a national party don’t exist at all if that party is not elected. The strongest unionist voice at Westminster from Northern Ireland allows our position to be maximised whatever the outcome of the next, or any other General Election is. We do not need to over analyse the benefits of unionist co-operation; they are clear and can deliver on a number of levels.
The public demand is clear. While opinion polls and surveys show consistently high support for co-operation, those surveys are simply confirming what we all know and have known for decades. Unionism still holds to the maxim of “united we stand, divided we fall”. As unionist parties we have looked at reductions in voter turnout and a lower number of unionists going to the polls but we have the opportunity to boost confidence amongst many unionists that their vote is actually worthwhile and will help deliver extra seats both at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
A pact or unity candidates would energise Unionist voters in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Belfast and boost Unionist confidence across the Northern Ireland. A Unionist has not regained a Westminster seat lost to Nationalism since 1983, two lie within our grasp. This is a real tangible goal that can be achieved within weeks, if we set party differences aside for the benefit of unionism as a whole and for the people living in those constituencies.
It is not just at Westminster however where the effects of unionist disunity are felt. Whilst theoretically it is not possible to split the vote in an STV Proportional Representation election the outworking of the 2007 Assembly Election in South Belfast show that unionism failed to maximise its potential within that Constituency. Leaving aside for one moment the reasons why both the DUP and UUP contested the General Election the combined total of the two parties was over 50% of the vote. By the time of the Assembly election in 2007 that total had fallen to just over 40%.
History shows that only two unionists were elected from South Belfast to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007 when, even with the vote achieved, it could have been possible to see three candidates elected. However, the choice by the UUP to run three candidates, poorer than necessary transfer rates between the parties and an obvious drop in unionist turnout saw unionism return only one-third of the representatives from South Belfast at Assembly level.
The case for co-operation is not merely a Westminster one, although it is most easily seen when unionism loses a seat at Westminster because of a divided unionist vote. Unionists are able to understand that political parties have differences of policy and positioning. However, when they see electoral failure simply as a result of an unnecessary disagreement, then we can see the impact it can have on the overall level of representation in that area with potential reductions in voter turnout.
The DUP has shown that we are willing to make sacrifices in the cause of retaining seats for unionism. In 1997 we stood aside in both North Belfast and West Tyrone, despite the most recent election result in North Belfast showing the DUP as the larger unionist party. By 2001, electoral geography made the fight for West Tyrone a tough challenge, but we recognised that in both South Belfast and Fermanagh South Tyrone there was the opportunity to reach agreement on those seats. We made an offer to the UUP on this but it was simply dismissed. Again in 2005, to the cost of unionism, there was no acceptance that a single unionist party “laying claim” to one of those seats would see nationalism win.
We should not let this continue for a third General Election. People simply do not understand why it is not possible for the two main unionist parties to find an agreement on these two constituencies. The DUP is willing to try again however and with just over four weeks to go before the likely close of nominations I sincerely hope that David Cameron and Reg Empey will act wisely on this issue.
An abstentionist Sinn Fein MP may give a slight boost to the chances of forming a Conservative Government by reducing the overall number required by that Party, but it simply is not in the best interests of the Union or of Northern Ireland to reduce the number of unionists we return to Westminster because a party cannot set aside self-interest for the best interests of everyone.
Just because someone has been selected by one of the parties also does not mean that the opportunities are all lost. The DUP moved to select Arlene Foster as our candidate in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and in the absence of agreement, as the leading unionist candidate in the Constituency she will be our standard bearer in the election. However, she has made it quite clear that she is prepared to step aside for an agreed unionist candidate as that gives the best possible opportunity to have the voices of Fermanagh & South Tyrone people heard at Westminster.
The candidates selected are not the most important factor, but it is whether we can find agreement to have a single unionist candidate finally submit nomination papers in just a few weeks time. That could see unionism regain a Westminster seat lost to nationalism for the first time since 1983 and would provide the platform to demonstrate how unionist co-operation can work and could develop to maximise the potential which Ulster’s unionists wish to see their political representatives deliver. That is the strategy which I believe would be best for the Union and would keep unionism moving forward.
For further information on the DUP’s ‘Unionist Unity’ campaign click here.