Four weeks from today the votes will be counted and we will know if any political party that doesn’t want Northern Ireland to exist is its largest party. Even at the upper levels of the DUP there is private acceptance of it sense fine is ahead. The polls have been showing that for a year and a half.
Don’t be surprised, however, if the DUP secures its path to victory – not because its constituents are enthusiastic about the party, but because for a segment of them their dislike of Sinn Féin outweighs their dislike of the DUP.
Last August, LucidTalk had the DUP at 13 percent versus Sinn Féin’s 25 percent – an incredible collapse for the Unionist party, which garnered 36 percent of the vote in the 2017 Westminster election. The latest figures put the DUP at 19 percent versus Sinn Féin’s 26 percent. Social market research came to a similar conclusion, with the DUP lagging behind by seven percentage points.
Despite such a bleak backdrop, and even though the DUP has spent the last year gnawing at itself, it still has room for improvement. The path to victory is to make this fight relentless in tribal terms. The party’s message is essentially this: you have to vote for us or you’ll get a Sinn Féin prime minister. It’s cynical but effective.
Polls show that 64 percent of unionized voters care who becomes first minister, and a virtually identical proportion of nationalist voters are similarly motivated by the issue. This means that every time the DUP points out the importance of beating Sinn Féin, it pressures its union rivals. But it also helps Sinn Féin pressure its rivals, turning this into a grossly sectarian competition.
This is not new as it happened in the 2017 general election after Stormont collapsed over the RHI scandal. Unable to credibly defend her record in government, Arlene Foster deliberately turned the competition into an Orange-Green fight, repeatedly warning of “Gerry Adams’ radical Republican agenda” and infamously saying she would never support an Irish-speaking one Accepting the plot (spoilers – she did) by saying, “When you feed a crocodile, it keeps coming back looking for more.”
That probably saved the seats of some DUP MPs who, had they been on the party list, would have been mistreated by voters. But it also delivered an overwhelming result for Sinn Féin, which edged the DUP to within one seat and helped the unions lose their Stormont majority for the first time in 96 years.
In this context, surveys are of limited use in predicting behavior. Pollsters have long recognized the shy DUP and Sinn Féin voter; As the DUP has become increasingly unpopular, this should now be a major factor again.
But there are other voters who are not necessarily honest with themselves. Many people like to think they are considering parties’ health or education policies, but a century of electoral history belies that for most voters. The forces that make someone choose the way they do and not even consider certain parties may be innate rather than conscious.
Whilst it is true that this contest is overwhelmingly symbolic and the First Minister in his role as Minister cannot even order a ham sandwich without the consent of the Deputy First Minister, symbolism has often counted for more than substance in Irish politics.
Therefore, the competition for First Minister is not really about a title, but an inter-municipal competition for supremacy. Unionists are very open about it, while Sinn Féin tries to appear unconcerned about such trifles. But she wants it, and she knows many of her constituents want it too.
Had it not been interested in the title, Sinn Féin would have agreed to former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie’s proposal to rename the leaders of Stormont Castle the Joint First Minister. Though Sinn Féin has been calling Michelle O’Neill that for years, it declined to endorse the proposal.
There is potential for this fight to spark something deep within voters. Many unionists see it as their responsibility to do everything in their power to prevent former IRA members who murdered their relatives from gaining victory; Many nationalists see it as a peaceful response to decades of Unionist rule under which their ancestors lived. Many others are horrified by such thoughts, and so – ironically – Alliance will likely do well in a deeply indigenous struggle.
On either side, some voters will be reluctant to support either major party, but this is most evident in unionism. Many union voters loathe the DUP, seeing the party as incompetent, sometimes corrupt, and having directed the mutilation of the union. But many of them despise Sinn Féin even more.
Therefore, even if the DUP wins, this is not a positive vote for the party – and at some point, whether now or in the future, this tactic of keeping Sinn Féin out will fail.
Four days ago, one of the key architects of the modern DUP, Richard Bullick, devised a more sophisticated plan to harm Sinn Féin. In a series of tweets, he advocated that after giving high preference votes to union candidates, unionists should tactically vote for non-unionists.
He suggested that to exclude Sinn Féin MLAs, unionists should switch to the SDLP in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the Alliance in West Tyrone and the SDLP or Alliance in North Belfast – because they would most likely win at Sinn Féin’s expense.
The idea of voting for nationalists is heresy for some traditional trade unionists – even if it is in the interest of the unions – and there has been no indication that the DUP supports it.
Political progress has many faces. Despite the campaign’s depressingly tribal nature, it shows how political disputes are resolved at the ballot box rather than through violence — and a senior union leader suggests voting for non-unionists, even if it’s to keep Republicans out.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/all-is-not-yet-lost-for-the-dup-in-tactical-battle-to-beat-sinn-fein-41539055.html All is not lost for the DUP in the tactical battle against Sinn Féin