Unionists and their voting patterns are likely to be the deciding factor in the Northern Ireland Assembly election. The critical aspect of the election is how many seats the DUP lose and where they go. Two factors will be particularly key to this – unionist turnout and unionist preferences.
It is no secret that unionism is divided. None of the three main parties playing for unionist votes have come up with a unifying message to unite unionism under a single banner.
Many thought that the person to do that would be Doug Beattie. His plan has been to reinvigorate the UUP with liberal positions on social issues whilst opposing the NI Protocol in any form. He hoped to offer a home to the moderate unionists who moved in their droves to Alliance in 2019 and a common-sense, well-run alternative to the stumbling DUP.
Although Beattie has indeed steadied the UUP ship and breathed some life into the old beast, it does not seem that his campaign has really caught the imagination of those moderate unionists who are a vital demographic in so many constituencies. And the issues are not just on one side. Their new social liberalism and relentless attacks from loyalist activists for being “soft” on the protocol have damaged their credentials with traditional conservative unionists.
The DUP, meanwhile, has been floundering for a few years and seems to have irreparably damaged its reputation amongst many unionists. Their strategy has essentially boiled down to the old faithful of scaring unionists with warnings of a possible Sinn Fein First Minister and a united Ireland, as they are so easily attacked on every issue that matters at this election.
The problem for them is that this threat becomes less and less effective at each election as the population has become progressively less sectarian. In an election being fought largely on the cost-of-living crisis and the state of the health service, people are less interested than ever in the old sectarian shit-stirring. The party is a shell of its old self and no longer the reliable vote-getter it once was.
For Jim Allister, the fall of the DUP is a gift from heaven. He is seeking to strip the party of its ultra-conservative, loyalist, and most sectarian voters by making the NI protocol central to the TUV’s campaign strategy. He is banking on the fact that enough people think the NI protocol is the defining issue of the election. The DUP has received a lot of flak for propping up the UK Conservative government which delivered Brexit with the Protocol attached and Allister reckons DUP voters will come to him and his party instead.
The issue is that the TUV has barely addressed the cost-of-living crisis, the health service, the education system, infrastructure or indeed any other issue that matters to the voters. Polling suggests there simply are not enough voters out there who prioritise the protocol over those issues for the TUV to make serious headway.
None of these parties are really in a position to truly energise large swathes of the unionist electorate. Whilst the UUP may have captured the imagination of some liberals, they are equally at risk of haemorrhaging their traditional conservative base. The DUP is being beaten on all sides. The TUV only has niche appeal.
The success of unionist parties in this election hangs largely on whether traditional unionists turn out in their usual numbers, or, faced with three parties they do not see representing them, sit this election out. Canvassers from parties across the board have reported widespread apathy and indecision at the doors of unionist households.
With the margins so fine in numerous constituencies, if even 5% of the usual unionists sit out, the seats will begin to fall without other parties needing to grow their raw votes that much. If that 5% number gets significantly higher, it could be catastrophic for the DUP, for whom the most unionist frustration is reserved and who have the furthest to fall. On the other hand, if the unionist vote stays motivated and gets out the door despite initial frustration, it could be their saviour.
The other variable in this election is unionist transfers. Traditionally, unionist voters have been disciplined in transferring to other unionists down the ballot and the parties have encouraged it. Electoral pacts have existed and there has always been a heavy emphasis on maximising the unionist vote. Doing that this time around will be much more difficult.
The big problem for unionism when it comes to transfers is the TUV. They have always been regarded as a bit of a fringe party, not taken seriously by many. Now, they’re in a position where they are likely to be in a good position to pick up multiple seats based on first preferences. They will, however, need significant numbers of transfers from the DUP and UUP.
Unfortunately for them, given their inflexible, extreme stances they’re not likely to get them. Polling backs this up. Averaging the two 2nd preference polls there have been, 16% of UUP voters and 29% of DUP voters would transfer to the TUV which would not be nearly enough in constituencies to get them over the line when faced with a transfer juggernaut that is Alliance in races for final seats.
When it comes to preferences going in the other direction, that is also a problem. A lot of new TUV voters are voting for them because they no longer trust the DUP. Additionally, most TUV voters find the UUP too liberal to stomach. The amount of TUV voters transferring is likely to be comparatively low compared to other parties.
The result of all this is there are likely to be a sizeable chunk of unionist votes wasted on the TUV. The TUV is likely to emerge from the election with a significantly higher vote share than seat-share having jeopardised a plethora of DUP seats and a couple of UUP seats too. Conversely, if TUV voters transfer in high numbers, they could save the DUP in a variety of seats.
Additionally, the UUP, with their new liberalism, means their preferences are likely to skew to Alliance more than in 2017, especially from their particularly liberal new faces running in the four Belfast constituencies. That, combined with dissatisfaction with the DUP, could leave the DUP with a serious lack of transfers in narrow races for the fifth seat. DUP candidates will be hoping with all their might that their calls for inter-unionist transferring will be heeded by TUV and UUP voters, but they should not hold their collective breath.