North’s election will be dominated by ‘Project Fear’
Northern Irish parties parade new leaders as DUP stirs voting jitters ahead of May vote
First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin. Photograph: Carson/PA Wire
David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire
Regular issues such as jobs, health and education will feature in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign but distilled to its essentials this contest is about two key matters: personality and Project Fear.
But the Northern Ireland version of Project Fear is the Democratic Unionist Party warning that if unionists don’t rally behind the DUP then they’ll end up with Martin McGuinness as first minister rather than Arlene Foster.
It’s the Orange versus Green constitutional issue which always takes precedence.
It’s an old refrain designed to keep the Ulster Unionist Party and other unionists in their place but, as far as the DUP is concerned, no less potent for all its over-use.
Conversely, it also tends to serve Sinn Féin well as it creates the notion among some nationalists that if they changed allegiance from the SDLP to Sinn Féin that Northern Ireland for the first time ever would have a nationalist first minister.
So it’s critical for the Ulster Unionists and SDLP to resist Project Fear. Greater pressure appears to fall on the SDLP as on a very bad day the party could end up in single figures and close to the standing of Alliance.
So, there is a lot to play for in this election.
Robinson absentPeter Robinson
The SDLP also has a new leader in Colum Eastwood while this is Mike Nesbitt’s first Assembly campaign as leader of the UUP.
Foster, Eastwood and Nesbitt will be advertising that they are fresh faces who will bring new vigour to Northern Ireland politics.
The main faces of Sinn Féin and Alliance are Martin McGuinness and David Ford and they have been around awhile.
But Sinn Féin is playing on the big personality of the Deputy First Minister to such an extent that he is being switched from Mid-Ulster back to his native Foyle to try to unseat the SDLP as the main nationalist party in John Hume’s Derry.
The Alliance Minister of Justice David Ford may be more self-effacing but here the party will play on his calm, common sense, centre-ground politics and quiet persuasiveness.
In the last Assembly elections in 2011 the DUP hit what may be the high-water mark for them of 38 seats while Sinn Féin won 29.
The UUP under then leader Tom Elliott won 16 seats but this was reduced to 13 when Strangford MLA David McNarry ended up in UKIP and Basil McCrea and John McCallister quit to form NI21 which soon self-combusted.
The SDLP under then leader Margaret Ritchie won 14 seats in 2011 while Alliance won eight.
Is there anything to Project Fear? In March First Minister Arlene Foster said that a “swing of only two votes in every 100 from the DUP to Sinn Féin would see Martin McGuinness become the next first minister”.
At the DUP manifesto launch last week, deputy leader Nigel Dodds said it was “a two-horse race” between Foster and McGuinness for the post.
The question was asked was it not a false and academic issue as Foster and McGuinness hold a joint office, not to mention that McGuinness said were he in a position to be first minister he would change the title of the office to joint first ministers.
Up to a point that is correct,but were Sinn Féin to eclipse the DUP it would be a damaging psychological blow for the DUP and for broader unionism as well.
Some may see it as atavistic sectarian politics but in the long-running unionist-nationalist power struggle who is first minister does matter.
Say Sinn Féin were to hold its current 29 seats – and it is vulnerable in three of them – and gain seats in Foyle, Upper Bann, East Derry and West Tyrone,then that would give the party 33 seats.
But the prospect of five, six or seven DUP losses while possible seems unlikely.
The party may be most vulnerable in East Antrim and North Belfast. DUP strategists nonetheless say big losses can’t be ruled out if unionists don’t heed their warning about the first minister post.
They point out that in constituencies where the DUP has four and three seats that, such is the unpredictability of the proportional representation system, final seats could be decided by a “handful of votes”. Each of the 18 constituencies has six seats.
They also refer to how, in the 2014 local and European elections, Sinn Féin won more votes than the DUP while in last year’s Westminster election the DUP was just 8,000 votes ahead of Sinn Féin.
Which is why, as well as Project Fear, the DUP concentration is on the personality of Arlene Foster.
At the manifesto launch on the Shankill Road the big-screen backdrop carried a huge picture of the First Minister with the statement, “Support Arlene’s plan for a stronger Northern Ireland.”
And it’s been “Arlene, Arlene, Arlene” ever since.
DUP people say that the response to Foster has been amazing on the ground while people in other parties acknowledge that the “Foster bounce” is working well for the party.
One senior DUP source made an admission that indicated the party is very happy it now has Foster rather than Peter Robinson as leader.
“This is the first time in a very long time that we have had such energy in the campaign,” he said.
“I remember in the days of the Doc [Ian Paisley] when you’d be out canvassing with him there was a warmth towards him and an energy in the canvass team. We had that in 2007 but we lost it. Well Arlene has brought it back.”
But Nesbitt also has played on his personality and fairly moderate unionist politics which has helped give the UUP some momentum in the past two years.
At the very least he will be seeking to regain the two seats that went to NI21 when Basil McCrea in Lagan Valley, who is not standing, and John McCallister in South Down, who is running, abandoned the UUP.
There also could be opportunities in East Derry, Upper Bann and North Belfast.
To make those gains he needs to convince unionism that Project Fear, as one Ulster Unionist strategist put it, “is a nonsense”.
It is under threat in West Belfast where it holds five seats and where People Before Profit candidate Gerry Carroll is well placed to win a seat and where the DUP’s Frank McCoubrey also has a chance.
It is also under pressure to hold Oliver McMullan’s seat in East Antrim while in Fermanagh South Tyrone the SDLP feels it could take one of its three seats.
Sinn Féin believes it can win a second seat in Upper Bann where the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly is battling for her political future and has outside prospects in East Derry and, due to SDLP faction fighting, in West Tyrone
But the big Sinn Féin v SDLP battleground is Foyle where the SDLP has three seats to Sinn Féin’s two, and which is the constituency of new SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
Derry has stayed loyal to the SDLP and John Hume but, with such a big hitter as McGuinness on the ballot paper, it will be a test for the party to maintain dominance. To lose Derry would be damaging.
The SDLP is also at risk in West Belfast, Upper Bann and South Belfast and perhaps, to a lesser extent, in East Derry and West Tyrone. Eastwood, who has been impressive so far, will need all his personality and powers of persuasion to withstand that challenge and keep the SDLP relevant.
Alliance is well placed to hold on to to its eight seats. The expected return of Naomi Long, who last year lost her Westminster seat to Gavin Robinson of the DUP, also will give the party heart.
The Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister seems certain to be returned in North Antrim with his TUV also entertaining hopes of winning an extra seat in North Antrim and in South Down.
The Greens will be hoping to hold Steven Agnew’s seat in North Down and be in with a shout perhaps in a couple of other constituencies.
It’s been a temperate campaign so far but that could change.