The Ulster Unionist Party will not stand a candidate against Nigel Dodds, the Westminster leader of the DUP, in his marginal constituency of North Belfast.
Steve Aiken, who will become UUP leader next week, made waves on the morning of the DUP’s conference last week by pledging to run candidates in all 18 of Northern Ireland’s constituencies.
He has now u-turned after enduring several days of intense pressure locally, which allegedly included threats to UUP staff by loyalist paramilitaries.
Aiken’s party has not run in North Belfast — where Dodds is defending a slender majority of 2,081 over Sinn Féin’s John Finucane — since 2010. Though the UUP are now are much weaker electoral force — and have not won an Assembly seat in North Belfast since 2007 — Aiken’s bullish pledge to stand regardless of the risk it posed to Dodds nonetheless prompted Arlene Foster to accuse him of handing the seat to republicanism.
Her furious reaction rather undermined the DUP’s insistence that it could win the seat regardless. But her sentiment was shared by more conservative elements of the UUP, and by Thursday evening Aiken was pledging only to run candidates “across Northern Ireland”.
At that point, the die was cast. When the DUP yesterday unilaterally stepped aside in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the UUP are a close second to Sinn Féin, today’s announcement became a when, not an if.
The immediate consequence of the UUP’s withdrawal will be a smoother ride for Dodds. Without a rival unionist candidate, the DUP believe — with some justification — that he is likelier than not to hold on. The size of their parliamentary party will matter come another hung parliament.
But even more significant than the fact of holding the seat for unionism will be that Dodds will remain its unquestioned leader at Westminster. Eurosceptic by conviction, his continued presence at the helm of the DUP’s Westminster operation naturally means a drastic or even mild change in approach — be it on Brexit, or how the party operates in a minority parliament — is less likely. Some unionist commentators had whispered that his defenestration might have been a healthy thing in the long term.
The question it poses for Aiken and the UUP, however, is much bigger, and indeed existential: what is the point?
Aiken, a Remainer and liberal by his party’s standards, is not yet UUP leader. But he had staked its survival on outflanking his larger rival not just on Europe and social issues, but on broader questions of propriety.
Now, having repeatedly cast the DUP as unionism’s own worst enemy — a party of, to paraphrase his own words, sleazy useful idiots for Boris Johnson — he is now endorsing its leading light at Westminster.
It was arguably always inevitable that he would end up doing so — or at least that much of political unionism would demand that he did. You don’t need a long memory to recall how quickly the UUP undermined the last meaningful attempt by its leader to do electoral politics differently: Mike Nesbitt’s call for voters to give their second preferences to the moderate nationalist SDLP in 2017’s snap Stormont election.
Given the circumstances, a greater grassroots backlash was always inevitable this time. That Aiken either did not anticipate it or could not ride it out naturally begs the question of what his leadership is actually for.
He is at once accusing the DUP of undermining unionism and acting as its wholly owned subsidiary. Again, given the vagaries of first past the post, that was always likelier than not in North Belfast.
But, having promised defiance and delivered obedience, the defining mission of Aiken’s leadership has been thwarted before he has even begun.
Those hoping his ascension might change unionist politics will be bitterly disappointed — though perhaps not surprised.