Mike Nesbitt, the Ulster Unionist leader, says he’s annoyed that commentators have been characterising next week’s by-election as a sectarian headcount.
Unless you’ve just arrived on a space ship you’ll know that all our elections are tribal headcounts. It’s particularly so west of the Bann. There’s been no change in that respect for the last 150 years, but naturally unionist leaders don’t want to acknowledge that reality.
Headcounts ought to be an affront to our intelligence but they don’t bother us nearly as much as they should. It’s a depressing thought.
OK, on the nationalist side the two major parties would prefer it to be otherwise but when faced with a ritual headcount they have no alternative but to rise to the challenge. They have to deal with the situation they find themselves in.
On the other hand, for unionists the tribal headcount is the only real point of any election. We’ve just seen that reinforced yet again in Mid-Ulster with the nomination of a unionist unity candidate.
Fair enough, in some constituencies there are electoral contests within electoral contests. They’re the tests of opinion inside the nationalist and unionist blocs. They do provide some secondary interest although in reality they’re scarcely more important than beauty contests.
Former Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister and his friend, Basil McCrea at least deserve respect for their opposition to these traditional headcounts.
They’ve both resigned from their party in protest at the Moneymore decision in favour of a unity candidate. Both men recognise that a modern, self-respecting, pluralist democracy shouldn’t divide along crude sectarian lines.
Peter Robinson told his last party conference that he wanted an end to “them and us” politics. Likewise Mike Nesbitt has paid lip-service to the notion of pluralism. Their problem is that they can’t get away from ‘them and us’ politics while they cling to ‘them and us’ elections.
Their fine words don’t amount to a hill of beans. It was the same story in the last Westminster election in Fermanagh South Tyrone. And, Mike Nesbitt has refused to rule out similar pacts with the DUP in future, despite once voicing strong opposition to them. “I can’t imagine any circumstances in which it would be good for the UUP, good for the pro-union people of Northern Ireland or good for politics to have an electoral pact with the DUP,” he announced shortly after his elevation to the Ulster Unionist leadership.
The trouble with unionist reversion to the traditional headcount is that it forces the nationalist parties to respond in kind. In the case of next week’s election it would be better if Mid Ulster’s nationalists could have an undistorted choice between the SDLP and Sinn Féin. That isn’t possible when unionists opt to go down their time-honoured tribal route. Faced with an old-style headcount the only realistic option for nationalists is to respond by voting for the candidate perceived to be the stronger.
Will we ever have an election about something other than tribal identity? Won’t we need a whole new national context for our elections to bring that change about?