There has been much discussion recently on the subject of Unionist electoral pacts and Unionist/Loyalist unity. Whilst I am in favour of the latter, I remain undecided about the former.

Electoral pacts can certainly be useful, but only in the right circumstances and only if very careful analysis is undertaken beforehand.

I fully understand the emotional pull of a Unionist electoral pact. I have a lot of sympathy with those who hold to the view that a single, monolithic Unionist party would be better for the pro-Union community.

Unionism, however, is a “broad church” and we are a very long way from having one Unionist party which can represent all Unionists. We will probably never have such a party. 

It is therefore very important to take an unemotional and somewhat detached view of any potential Unionist electoral pact.

In elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, for example, there is some evidence which suggests that the Unionist vote actually increases when there is competition between pro-Union parties.

It is an unfortunate reality that in most constituencies, in most circumstances, there are DUP voters who will not vote for the UUP, even tactically. Conversely, there are UUP voters who will never vote DUP, electoral pact or not.

Is it therefore not more advantageous for ALL of the pro-Union parties to meet, pre-election, and carefully analyse past Stormont election results, in order to ascertain how to maximise the Unionist vote?

If a constituency, East Antrim for example, regularly elects four Unionist MLAs and one from a so-called “neutral party”, it is reasonable to conclude that the more “moderate” and liberal Ulster Unionist Party will be best placed to take an additional seat from the “neutral party” and thus ensure that Unionism wins all five seats in that constituency.

In another constituency, let’s use West Tyrone as our example this time, pro-Union parties win only one seat whilst Irish nationalist parties take four. Yet, in the last Assembly elections, the UUP came within a few hundred votes of winning a second seat for Unionism.

Had the Ulster Unionists stood aside and allowed the DUP a “free run” in West Tyrone, thus encouraging them to confidently stand a second candidate, could they have taken that second seat?

Perhaps, although it is just as likely that, given no pro-Union alternative, many of those who voted UUP in the last election would simply stay at home on polling day, rather than give their first and second preference votes to the DUP.

What the examples we have looked at illustrate, is that electoral pacts might be beneficial in some elections, in some constituencies, but only at certain times and in certain circumstances.

A greater degree of Unionist and Loyalist unity at all levels is, in my opinion, much more important and has the potential to yield far more long-term benefit.

It is extremely unlikely that, prior to the next Assembly election, the two main Unionist parties will sit down together to decide upon a joint strategy for that election. It is even more unlikely that they will be joined by the TUV and Progressive Unionist Party. That is unfortunate.

A pre-election summit of Donaldson, Beattie, Allister and Hutchinson would send out a powerful message. It would be clear evidence that Unionist leaders are prepared to put country before party. Such a show of cross-party unity would also, almost certainly, boost the Unionist vote come polling day.

It is not working class Loyalists that need to be convinced on the benefits of unity, it is the swing-voters, the so-called “garden centre Unionists”.

They will not be sold on the idea by the rallying calls of hardliners (and I absolutely accept that I am myself a hardliner), nor will they be persuaded by a “backs to the wall” narrative in which Unionist unity is proposed only in order to beat “the other side”.

Those floating voters will be won over only by a positive message. They must be persuaded, not brow-beaten. Coaxed, not coerced.

It is my firm belief that under the leadership of Doug Beattie, the Ulster Unionist Party will be able to mobilise the “garden centre vote” and take votes, and ultimately seats, from the likes of Alliance and the Green Party. Beattie’s revival of the UUP would only be hampered by a general, NI wide electoral pact with the DUP.

Many potential UUP voters, especially in constituencies East of the Bann, would perceive it, rightly or wrongly, as a throwback to less enlightened times. In short, it would be a major “turn-off” for the kind of extremely moderate urban voters which the Ulster Unionists are currently trying to court. Few, if any, of those voters are likely to give first preference votes to the DUP, therefore, if those votes are lost to the UUP, they are lost to Unionism as a whole. That can only be interpreted as a negative. 

Any potential electoral pact must reflect political reality. However much some people would like to see a “pan-Unionist front” emerging, such a development is unlikely in the extreme. 

Some form of unified Unionist/Loyalist electoral strategy is much less improbable and, in my opinion, is much more likely to produce positive results. The next Assembly election is as good an opportunity as any to “test the water”.

A very selective, very carefully considered electoral pact, covering a handful of (more rural) constituencies has a very good chance of increasing the Unionist vote, although it is by no means guaranteed. Surely such an agreed (albeit limited) strategum has to be worth trying? 

An old fashioned, jingoistic, seige-mentality electoral pact would be a disaster however, not only because it would repel more pro-Union voters than it would attract, but also because it would set Unionism back, ideologically, by about 50 years.
Unionist and Loyalist unity can only be a positive thing. As for electoral pacts, I remain unconvinced.

For many members of our community it might be appealing in their hearts, I can understand that, but we must not allow ourselves to be ruled by emotion.

We must think beyond the next election cylce. We must think long term. Above all, we must not allow our political opponents to force us into a corner.

Are electoral pacts beneficial for Unionism? Probably. Are they necessary? Absolutely not.

By It’s Still Only Thursday

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