Dodds determined to top poll in Europe


DAN KEENAN on the canvass with Diane Dodds:It’s not so much about taking a seat in Europe as winning, which means beating Sinn Féin

DIANE DODDS steps off the DUP Battle Bus on Bangor’s market day and begins to mingle as if she owns the place.

This, however, is North Down, a maverick “does-its-own-thing” type of place which has twice selected Lady Sylvia Hermon as its Ulster Unionist MP. In the background, speakers on rival Jim Allister’s canvass blare out warnings of unionist treachery.

“I’m fighting tenaciously for Northern Ireland,” his recorded voice declares, the implication being that other unionists are not.

But Mrs Dodds presses ahead with her simple message and a direct, personable style.

Her canvassers include Ian Paisley jnr, Industry Minister Arlene Foster, local Assembly members Peter Weir and Alex Easton, party grandee Lord Maurice Morrow, South Down Assembly member Jim Wells and a host of other councillors and DUP workers. It’s quite a posse.

Bangor seems more than happy to see her, to stop and chat and – quite possibly – vote for her.

She declares she is “the only unionist who can top the poll”. Hers is the only party which can “keep unionism first in Europe”.

This election is not so much about taking a seat as “winning” – and winning means beating Sinn Féin to top the poll and ensuring that unionists take two of Northern Ireland’s three seats in the European Parliament.

Despite being a PR election, her literature proclaims baldly in the language of first-past-the-post: “It’s a straight choice between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Don’t waste your vote.” She is a natural chatter – “I could talk for Ulster,” she confesses.

A woman married to a fisherman who engages her raises the plight of the industry on this stretch of the Co Down coast. The candidate replies with a line or two about EU regulation and vows to get the best deal for the local fleet. The next voter talks about women in politics, or the lack of them. Mrs Dodds says the DUP offers a platform for women that the Ulster Unionists with their Dickensian culture could never do. Arlene Foster, a UUP defector, concurs.

Another voter raises the lack of children’s facilities in Donaghadee. Cue the local Assembly man, this time Peter Weir, who notes down a name, number and a line on the issue.

This is how the DUP does it – lots of leaflets, posters and famous faces. It’s all about high visibility; the Battle Bus circles the town, Ian jnr darts this way and that, cracking one-liners.

A one-time Assembly member for the Shankill area of West Belfast, Mrs Dodds can talk urban unionist politics. Being a farmer’s daughter from the townland of Ballymagross in south Down, she can talk agriculture too.

On the canvass the party oozes confidence – enough in fact to allow themselves to take over a pavement cafe to sip coffee in the sunshine while the voters come to them. In between the smiles and the handshakes with the electorate she offers her view on the election and her opposition.

Beating Sinn Féin for top spot is important for a variety of reasons. “I don’t want to gift Sinn Féin a victory, especially at a time when things are not going well for them,” she says. “Unionists would be appalled if they saw republicans ‘lording it’ if they won.” A second place position would be “demoralising for the union” and a sop to “vote-splitters”.

At the last Euro election just 31 per cent of the local electorate turned out to vote. The DUP mission here is to convince the massive unionist majority that there is a point in turning out in an election for a distant parliament and to help “defeat” a republican opponent.

The capture of this Westminster constituency, which the DUP has never held, would constitute a total wipe-out of the Ulster Unionists and the de facto establishment of the DUP as a unionist leviathan.

Meanwhile there is June 4th, and the need to keep the Jim Allister threat down to manageable proportions.

No one here believes the Traditional Unionist Voice leader will retain his MEP status – but that is not the point. The objective in coming days is to shake the TUV’s foundations before it builds itself into something which would counter the DUP from the right – and this is a new and uncomfortable threat.