The UUP has released a list of 17 nominees seeking to become UCUNF candidates for the forthcoming election. Of course Northern Ireland contains 18 Westminster constituencies, however, Sylvia Hermon, MP for North Down, is refusing to stand for the Conservatives and Unionists.
Clearly she has excluded herself from the race. Despite ‘ongoing talks’ the only credible courses of action are, either to put forward an alternative UUP nominee, or simply to leave the way free for the Tory selection, Ian Parsley. After all, the Ulster Unionist, Mike Nesbitt, will be unopposed in Strangford.
The final list is, to be honest, a fairly mixed bunch. A few words about each constituency.
North Antrim: The task of taking on Allister and a Paisley is unenviable by any standards. Rodney McCune found himself unable to defend the UUP’s vote in 2005. Robin Swann’s record in elections doesn’t command a great deal of confidence. He is expected to be the candidate and he could well find himself crushed between the two heavyweight, Ulster nat contenders.
South Antrim: Adrian Watson, a local councillor, is a contentious choice. His brand of unionism is not considered convivial to the Conservatives. Expect a heated discussion in the Joint Executive if Watson emerges as the candidate to face Willie McCrea. The DUP traditionalist would represent a big scalp for UCUNF and it is important to pick the right person to take him on. It would be galling to see McCrea squeak back into Westminster by virtue of the back door. The issue of Watson’s wife, who is reluctant to accept rent from boys who wish to share a room in her bed and breakfast, remains outstanding. What Willie makes of that, we can only surmise.
East Antrim: Rodney McCune fought a gutsy campaign in North Antrim in 2005. He would make an able candidate, attuned to modern Conservatism. The incumbent, Sammy Wilson, is not as vulnerable as some other DUP MPs, and he is well known in the constituency. However Rodney would make an assured opponent, if he gets the nod.
North Belfast: Nigel Dodds held this seat in 2005, with the UUP coming way back in fourth place with 7.1%. Fred Cobain, the selection on that occasion, fancies another rattle. The political landscape has changed substantially since then, but it difficult to envisage the Conservative link offering much purchase in this deeply divided constituency.
West Belfast: Bill Manwaring is another nominee drawn from the wing of the party for whom the Conservative pact makes self-evident sense. He would look to gain votes by emphasising social justice. This is not, it has to be said, natural CU territory, but someone who is willing to get their hands dirty could confound expectations and achieve a credible result.
South Belfast: I believe that the Conservatives’ first choice, Peter McCann, is still in the running for this seat. Which means that UCUNF is likely to be represented by an enthusiastic, fresh face, whatever the Joint Committee’s decision. Paula Bradshaw has a history of community work in the area and should appeal across the class spectrum, in a particularly diverse constituency. A good choice for the UUP in South Belfast.
East Belfast: Trevor Ringland is a former Ireland rugby star with a history of activism against sectarianism. The competition for candidacy is still likely to come from DUP defector and Ballymena councillor Deirdre Nelson. East Belfast is winnable, despite Peter Robinson’s large majority, so the stakes are high.
Strangford: The selection of Mike Nesbitt has been accompanied by a blaze of publicity about his late involvement and his commitment to a Victims Commissioner post. Nesbitt is not a party functionary and he has a chance to freshen up the UCUNF challenge in a winnable constituency.
South Down: John McCallister is considered one of the UUP’s brighter prospects. He is also an MLA. Candidature would keep his profile high in the constituency, but he is unlikely to trouble the SDLP or Sinn Féin in a solidly nationalist seat.
Lagan Valley: An interesting choice. Daphne Trimble is one of the more ‘conservative UUs’, particularly with her husband’s membership of the Tories. She stood squarely against any dalliance with the DUP. Jeffrey Donaldson, meanwhile, has only just returned from a spell of anonymity, during which he probably wasn’t browsing the shelves at Xtra Vision. A Trimble victory in Lagan Valley would be a remarkable turnaround, worth celebrating. Of course Shelia Davidson, the original Tory nominee, might yet emerge as a possible choice.
Upper Bann: A seat which becomes winnable, assuming that the TUV stand a candidate. The UUP has gone for Harry Hamilton, of ‘Flash Harry’ fame. The Freddie Mercury impersonator would inevitably prove a press favourite and if he can persuade the Joint Committee that he has political nous as well as charisma, then the contest will be fascinating.
Newry and Armagh: Danny Kennedy appeared to be one of the prime movers behind talks with the DUP. He did garner a respectable 7,000 votes the last time, but it would be a pity to see the unreformed wing of the UUP emphasised at this election.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone: See above. Tom Elliot speaks the language of the past.
Mid Ulster: Billy Armstrong, another foot dragger, and occasional ’one party unionism’ fan stood the last time. Martin McGuinness will romp home and Sandra Overend hopes to become the UCUNF candidate.
West Tyrone: Ross Hussey was an early nomination, and if selected, he will hope to improve on his brother Derek’s performance in 2005. On that occasion the UUP could only manage fifth, with just short of 3,000 votes. This is, realistically, another exercise in spreading the word, because the constituency is solidly republican.
Foyle: David Harding is not one of the better known UUP nominations. Neither is Foyle a strong area for the Ulster Unionists. Conservatives and Unionists will simply want to challenge the DUP and grow the vote.
East Londonderry: As the chief DUP dissident, Gregory Campbell might not be as susceptible to leaking voters to the TUV, as other figures within the party. The UUP in the constituency has decided to put a fresh face in front of the Joint Committee, Lesley McAuley.
It will be fascinating to see the final list emerge. Hopefully with Parsley inked in for North Down. Then the Conservatives and Unionists can get on with the serious business of selling genuine participative British politics to the electorate in Northern Ireland.