Cross posted on Open Unionism.
As promised, some reaction to the UUP Assembly candidates list, revealed yesterday. Like O’Neill, the first name which took my eye was Reg Empey, whose impending elevation to the Conservative benches at the House of Lords has not prevented his selection for East Belfast.
On ‘Unionist Lite’ Michael Shilliday notes that the Lords is neither an elected nor a salaried position and therefore the party treats it as exempt from strictures on double-jobbing. That will be considered, by most people, to be too convenient a get out.
Simply, if you can’t be a Lord and remain in the House of Commons, neither should you become a Lord and remain at the Assembly. If the UUP wants to wriggle out on a technicality then there will be criticism and, in my opinion, it will be justified.
It has been suggested that the party’s process has simply not caught up with Empey’s sudden peerage. I hope that that is the case and that an alternative candidate will be selected in due course.
Looking at the rest of the list - the UUP has 17 Assembly members at the moment - and frankly it’s goal should be to have 17 after the election. There are very few likely gains on the horizon and a few constituencies where existing seats will be under considerable pressure.
Take East Antrim for instance. With boundary changes and the continued popularity of Sammy Wilson, Ulster Unionists will do tremendously to retain their two seats. Rodney McCune kept the vote up well during the general election, but running alongside Roy Beggs jnr, a well known name in the area, he must rely on sweeping up transfers in order to hold on.
Tom Elliott will hope that Rodney can do it, because he badly needs an injection of young talent for his Stormont team. It’s likely to be a tight run thing.
In North Antrim a perceived safe pair of hands, Robert Coulter, steps aside. Two candidates, Robin Swann and former Ballymoney DUP man Bill Kennedy, will fight the constituency but, realistically, the UUP needs to concentrate on keeping its existing seat. Coulter didn’t manage a quota last time and Jim Allister might scrape one in May, so the Ulster Unionists must hope that one of their men takes one for the team and that the SDLP’s Declan O’Loan gets edged out.
East Londonderry is another seat where the UUP returned an MLA under quota last time out. The party is putting up two good candidates this time, in Leslie Macauley and David Harding. It’s an odd situation though, because the pair both come fresh to the battle and, realistically, they are competing with each other. Whether the de-selection of David McClarty, the sitting MLA, will impact upon the campaign, we must wait and see. It has at least the potential to prove a complicating factor.
By no means is the UUP’s deputy leader, John McCallister, safe in South Down either. He should be able to hold on, but the SDLP and Sinn Féin will think that there is an extra seat there for either party, if they can organise their transfers cleverly enough.
In South Belfast Michael McGimpsey could be the man to lose out, even though he is a sitting minister. East Belfast is Empey territory, but (as above) he really should to do the honourable thing, given his impending Lordship. North Down should theoretically offer a chance of a gain, given that Alan McFarland’s seat was won under the auspices of the UUP, but who would bet on it returning to the Ulster Unionist fold with McFarland standing as an independent?
There are currently two Ulster Unionist seats in Upper Bann, by the skin of their teeth, but can the ticket really sustain a third candidate again, without room for embarrassment? Meanwhile Danny Kinahan is defending his South Antrim seat, won last time by David Burnside, with the added pressure of rabble-rouser Adrian Watson as a running mate.
Right the way down the slate then there is doubt and pressure. There are good candidates, but there are others, like Watson and McNarry, who if they were to join the DUP, would slot immediately into its less reasonable wing.
It’s definitely not the worst list the UUP could put together, but it’s still going to be a desperately difficult election for the party. No doubt the habitual exuberant optimism will kick in as May approaches, but if the Ulster Unionists are realistic, 'what we have we hold' will be a good result.