Acrobatics will win no new votes for Sir Reg

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

Elections here always throw up the worst excesses of tribalism among unionists. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of tribalism among Fenians. Indeed on the Fenian side they are so anxious to prove unionists are inherently tribal that they are even prepared to forego seats in Westminster by splitting their own tribal vote just to prove how tribal or, the preferred word, sectarian, unionists really are.

They don’t have to try that hard as the manoeuvring of Sir Reg Empey in South Antrim displays. His run to South Antrim is proof of his weakness and desperation to avoid being the last failed leader of the floundering UUP. He spotted an opportunity and flung aside all his carefully high-sounding positions to try to grab it.

He had stood aside from the contest in East Belfast allegedly because he wanted to end double-jobbing.

Of course he conveniently overlooked he is still a councillor as well as being a minister at Stormont. In reality it was to avoid being trounced again by Peter Robinson.

As a lame excuse for parachuting into South Antrim he announced that all the other party leaders are standing for Westminster so he had to. Except they’re not. David Ford is standing aside in South Antrim.

Even if they were, is that a reason for trying his luck?

Of course not. The reel reason is the UUP, which is in chaos in the constituency, spotted a weakness in the DUP position.

South Antrim is 66 per cent Protestant so unionists can fight each other there with no danger of letting a nationalist in.

The sitting MP Willie McCrea has a majority of only 3,400 but the TUV candidate might, just might, take enough votes to allow Sir Reg to slip in if enough unionists are annoyed with the DUP sharing power with Sinn Fein. That’s not all however. The main UUP ploy is that they hope the swath of nationalists around Crumlin which is now 75 per cent Catholic, plus Toome and Catholic southern Glengormley detest Willie McCrea so much they will plump for Sir Reg to get shot of McCrea.

Sir Reg is inviting them to desert their tribal candidates in Sinn Fein and the SOLP and vote in a non-sectarian way for him as the lesser of two evils.

This is the same Sir Reg who is supporting a pan-Protestant candidate in Fermanagh-South Tyrone despite saying he was setting up UCUNF with the Conservatives to put an end to tribal voting patterns in the north and to bring a ‘new force’ to politics here. Huh.

Sir Reg has performed so many political acrobatics including trying to make a deal with the UVF-linked PUP in Stormont that now he can not only stand on his head but spin at the same time. In South Antrim he is saying ‘don’t vote tribally so that I can get elected’ while at the same time in Fermanagh-South Tyrone he is saying ‘please vote tribally to stop a Shinner getting elected’. In South Belfast, meanwhile, Sir Reg hasn’t the courage to admit there is no UUP effort because in effect Jimmy Spratt is the agreed unionist candidate. In other words Empey’s UUP is encouraging a tribal vote by default which only the Orange Order is too stupid to see. One aspect Sir Reg may have overlooked is that potential TUV voters might prefer McCrea to him and that the support for Jim Allister in last year’s European election may not carry over next month.

It’s possible Sir Reg may receive a nasty shock.In the 2007 assembly elections, the DUP polled one and a half times as many votes as the UUP. Empey has certainly not won any new friends among unionists by his ill-advised embrace of David Cameron. The DUP line of asking for the maximum number of MPs to strengthen unionism in a hung parliament may carry more weight than Empey’s opportunism.

At least with the DUP you know they stand for naked tribalism. The UUP’s sleekit tribalism just confuses unionist voters.

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