In 2010-11 while I was running the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign I approached the UUP (who were somewhat receptive) and the DUP (who were less so) about introducing a fairer voting system for Westminster elections. The system that we were offering in the referendum was AV using a preference voting system to elect a single member to each seat.
One of the key arguments that I used to those who would listen to me (which included the now leader of the UU), Mike Nesbitt) was that in Northern Ireland with multiple parties it would mean the MP would have to secure the support of the majority of the electorate. So if people objected to an MP who refused to take up their seat in Westminster they could vote for the other candidates who would. Or if their preferred candidate didn't get the most first preferences their vote could transfer to another candidate within their comfort zone.
I also said that in Northern Ireland it would do away with the suspense of would there be pacts between parties before candidates were even named taking away the choice of individual voters for supporting a type of Unionism or Nationalism that they felt comfortable with, and leaving them only with one they were less comfortable with. Both parties in the end did not support us, although the Progressive Unionist Party along with UKIP did from the unionist side of politics here.
Therefore, sadly I am not surprised at the news this evening that the two largest Unionist parties have carved up four seats between them. The DUP will contest East Belfast and North Belfast with Gavin Robinson looking seeking to gain and Nigel Dodds MP to hold respectively, The UUP have been handed Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Newry and Mourne to two of their MLAs Tom Elliott and Danny Kennedy.
In these four seats there was potential that the vote could have been different under AV in 2010.
Belfast East of course was where Peter Robinson lost out to the Alliance's Naomi Long. The combined DUP/UCU-NF vote would have greatly out polled Naomi 5 years ago. It is possible that under AV Robinson would have held on in 2010. But the arrogance of the DUP that this is a unionist seat and the trouble that the DUP/UUP stirred up may actually mean that with the DUP being given the candidate here some moderate UUP voters instead of voting for the Unionist candidate may well transfer to Naomi. This is the grand prize the DUP wanted from the deal, it would be somewhat ironic if the way they have gone about trying to win it back backfires on them and this deal is the latest part of thier arrogance.
Belfast North is the only seat that has a defending Unionist MP in it. The margin of DUP/UCU-NF vote over the combined Sinn Féin/SDLP was a mere 1.6% lead, so under AV it would all go down to who would have swept up the Alliance's 5%. It was something similar the following year in the Assembly elections. So it is tight and the fact that the SDLP have not named a candidate here would be worrying for the DUP deputy leader facing the same fate as his leader 5 years ago.
Fermanagh and South Tyrone was the most marginal seat in 2010, Sinn Féin taking it from a single Independent unionist unity candidate by a mere 4 votes. The deal this time of course means that the unionist unity candidate will have a party name attached to them on the ballot as opposed to being listed as one of two independents, it is also one of the unionist MLAs for the constituency so has more name recognition than the candidate last time. Will it be enough to overcome 4 votes in a seat that Sinn Féin have held since Ken Maginnis stepped down as the UUP MP in 2001 (even against a single unionist on occassion)? Ironically when we went to Enniskillen and reran the poll as a sample of AV during the fairer votes campaign Michelle Gildernew still won and gained transfers from all fronts to get her there (so the MP has backing from strange quarters).
Newry and Armagh is the only seat that Unionists lost in the 1986 by-elections in protest to the Anglo-Irish agreement. It is also a seat that they haven;t come close to taking back ever since. Indeed in 2010 the combined vote was still 9% behind Sinn Féin and doesn't even need the further 23.4% that the SDLP polled to secure a nationalist majority.Most of the remaining vote has been squeezed so far that there is really nothing else up for grabs this time round. The UUP did badly in getting this as their second seat as part of the deal it is not likely to change hands even with the candidate using the naming of a play park after an IRA terrorist and Irish language as two rallying calls for unionist votes
In light of the almost impossible task in Newry and Armagh the shock is that they left out the more winnable:
Belfast South had the combined vote of DUP and UCU-NF a mere 16 votes behind the SDLP candidate. So it would have depended largely on how the Alliance Party vote would have transferred as to who would win there if there was an AV election. This time while Sinn Féin have named a candidate so too have the NI Conservatives. So some of that UCU-NF vote will go that way and it has to be seen what impact Sinn Féin will have on Alasdair McDonnell's vote. Maybe the expectation is that Belfast South will fall because of the split nationalist vote and perceived falling of McDonnell's standing, but it could be a risky game they are playing having made the pact in the four seats they chose.
However, as I point out in a couple of the examples above the need in the two Belfast seats that are part of this pact is for the DUP to bring across moderate unionists to their cause behind their unity candidate. The issue is what impact the DUP attacks on Alliance for trying to find a way for everyone will have on some of those votes. It is highly possible that by going over the heads of such moderate unionists in North and East Belfast that vote may find another home.
No doubt it is a risk that the DUP are prepared to take but the UUP would appear to do less well out of this deal than if they had backed a move to AV four years ago. The problem as I pointed out four years ago to making such pacts is that not all of your support will back the unity candidate. Some DUP vote may well head to TUV (if they stand) in the seats that the UUP are given and some UUP vote will also head elsewhere where the DUP have the candidate. It doesn't guarantee the result they want when the finishing line is not set and merely grabbing the most votes under First Past the Post rewards a "winner".
Editor's Note: Stephen was the Northern Ireland Co-ordinator for the Yes to Fairer Votes Campaign and attended UUP conference ahead of that year's Assembly Election to Lobby key figures in that party.