One of the luxuries of commentating on politics, rather than being an active participant, is the ability to stand above the Machiavellian horse-trading that often dictates, more than principle, the actions of a party.
I have already recorded my scepticism regarding rapprochement with the DUP. Fielding single unionist candidates seems to me capitulation to sectarian carve-up and represents a submission to the regressive communal politics right-thinking unionists need to oppose.
Nevertheless I acknowledge that such a deal has its attractions for the UUP, particularly as regards the constituencies of Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast. Not only would the party stand to gain one of the lost Westminster seats from such a deal, but the FST constituency would be wrested from the grip of Michelle Gildernew and its electorate would once again be represented in parliament.
I was less than surprised, however, to discover that the deal likely to be proposed by the DUP, is less advantageous to unionism and more driven by self-interest than the offer which had been expected by most commentators. Journalist David Maxwell is indicating that his understanding is that the DUP will offer to cede Fermanagh South Tyrone to the Ulster Unionist candidate, who will run unopposed by the DUP, on the understanding that South Belfast’s only mainstream unionist candidate is Jimmy “Splitter” Spratt the bellicose, rubicund ex-policeman who let in the SDLP’s candidate McDonnell at the last election.
In a constituency with a high proportion of liberal unionists Spratt will cause votes to be lost to the Alliance and the SDLP. Certainly I personally could not consider voting for such a candidate. The conventional wisdom has always been that the DUP would stand a decent chance of winning FST and that in liberal South Belfast, a UUP candidate would have a greater chance of success.
The real motivation for the DUP’s decision is that they are quite aware that if Tom Elliot or another UUP candidate wins in Fermanagh, it will be viewed as a victory enabled by the generosity of the DUP. If he loses, another crisis will be precipitated for the Ulster Unionists and the seat is unlikely to be seriously contested by the party again.
Accepting this deal would be bad for unionism, bad for Northern Ireland and bad for the UUP. If Maxwell’s understanding of the DUP’s proposal is correct, the Ulster Unionist Party should field candidates in both constituencies, avoiding disenfranchising their supporters in either, and standing a good chance of regaining South Belfast, perhaps with the leader seeking election.