THE launch this week of the DUP election campaign was a rather depressing indication of what we’re in for over the next month. Nominally based on a generic five-point plan that says little and means even less, it became clear at an early point that leader Jeffrey Donaldson has taken a leaf out of Arlene Foster’s book and decided that scaring the horses is the way to go if he’s to halt the party’s electoral slide.
Just as Mrs Foster fixated on Gerry Adams in the 2017 election – even when Michelle O’Neill was the Northern leader of the party – so Mr Donaldson has decided that the twin bogeymen of Sinn Féin and a border poll might be able to deliver for him in the way that everything he has tried thus far in his nine-month tenure has failed. A first preference for any party other than his is a wasted vote, he proclaimed time after time, on the part of any unionist who is determined to stop Sinn Féin from securing the border poll they’re in search of.
That’s a baffling strategy for a number of reasons. First and foremost it was a disaster for Mrs Foster in 2017 when she dropped ten seats, losing unionism its near 100-year majority and prompting media speculation that she was poised to quit. It failed for one very simple reason: voters were turned off by the sheer negativity of the message. It was a modern-day illustration of the continuing truth of the old axiom: say what you want about me – as long as you spell my name right. If Mr Donaldson and his team intend to spend the next four weeks bringing up Sinn Féin with the same grim determination that Mrs Foster brought up Gerry Adams five years ago, the depth of their optimism must know no bounds if they believe the outcome is going to be much different.
And does Mr Donaldson really think that if the DUP buck the trend and manage to pull off an unexpected result that hands the First Minister position back to them that there’s some magic button he can press to stop republicans from continuing the ever-widening conversations about a New Ireland and the calls for the border poll mandated by the Good Friday Agreement in the right circumstances? Those conversations are never going to stop and the agitating for a test of the island’s will on partition is never going to go away. Simply put, ending Sinn Féin’s border poll aspirations is simply not something that is deliverable by the DUP or by anybody else. The unlikely DUP resurgence that Mr Donaldson needs to persuade the Secretary of State to keep blocking a border poll would need to see concomitant – and even more unlikely – collapse in the nationalist and republican vote.
All of this is common knowledge, of course. Mr Donaldson knows a reprise of Foster 2017 is more likely than not to fail. If he is to succeed in persuading unionists to vote for fear instead of hope then the political temperature is going to have to be a lot higher than it was in 2017. Against that background, his decision to take to flag-draped anti-Protocol stages with loyalist demagogues begins to make more sense.