Donaldson sells fear as the DUP vote threatens to fragment

Talk of a unionist pact to avoid a Sinn Féin first minister is a reprise of an old tune

Jeffrey Donaldson seems to have judged it was best to get the ball rolling early. Photograph: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

Jeffrey Donaldson seems to have judged it was best to get the ball rolling early. Photograph: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

 

At every election in Northern Ireland there is a push for a pact, be it unionists or nationalists seeking a deal to maximise seats in Stormont or at Westminster in the perpetual orange versus green struggle.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson made his pitch relatively early this year, a few days ago urging an electoral accord involving his party, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

The purpose of the call, almost needless to say, was to heighten the chances of unionist parties combating the real possibility of Sinn Féin being the largest party after the next Assembly elections, and thereby putting Michelle O’Neill in position to be the first minister.

This mention of a pact came eight months ahead of the next scheduled Assembly elections in May. But the idea of a Sinn Féin first minister is anathema to most unionists, even those who are quite liberal, and Donaldson therefore seems to have judged it was best to get the ball rolling early.

His hope will be that, in the coming months, some traction may be gained in trying to galvanise unionist anxieties about Sinn Féin filling the top post.

There certainly is scope for co-operation. The DUP, UUP, TUV and Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) on Tuesday presented a united front in opposing the Northern Ireland protocol.

Pacts are a little more difficult, however. Jim Allister and the TUV are amenable to the idea of co-operation but still are standing candidates in all 18 five-seater constituencies, which is not a great help to the DUP. UUP leader Doug Beattie firmly said no, and believes his party can dig into the DUP vote.

Unionist fragmentation

There is a fragmentation in unionism at the moment, as the DUP has dipped significantly in the polls. The political world is changing. Some DUP supporters of a more moderate bent are switching to the UUP or even to Alliance, while others see their salvation in the TUV.

Seeking to maintain the DUP as a monolith, similar to Sinn Féin on the nationalist side, is a monumental challenge for Donaldson. Putting the idea of a pact into the unionist consciousness this early is the start of what will be a wider campaign to try to put the brakes on Sinn Féin.

A pact or understanding could help unionism. For instance, in West Belfast, where there is no unionist sitting, a single strong unionist candidate could take a seat with the Shankill vote. A single unionist candidate in Foyle would make it easier for DUP MLA Gary Middleton to hold his seat.

In the Assembly elections in March 2017, many unionists were similarly disaffected with the DUP, to such an extent that Sinn Féin finished just one seat shy of the DUP’s 28 and fewer than 1,200 votes short of the DUP’s overall first-preference vote, with parties on 28 per cent.

That frightened unionism so much that in the Westminster election three months later, the votes flooded back to the DUP, leaving the party more than 53,000 votes ahead of Sinn Féin and with two extra MPs .

That is the fear Donaldson wants to embed in the unionist psyche for next May’s election. It’s the oldest tribal trick in the Northern Ireland electoral handbook, and between now and May, Donaldson and the DUP will relentlessly trumpet “Remember 2017” and warn that if you do not stick with the main orange brand, you will end up with the green Sinn Féin label as the biggest electoral force.

Talk of a pact is the start of that process. There will be more to come. It has worked before, but there is no guarantee it will be bought this time.

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