University of Ulster academic Pol O'Dochartaigh has made a series of pronouncements of Unionist Unity in yesterday's Irish News (subs reqd). However, while there may have been selective quoting by the journalist the argument as presented is full of holes.
He believes he has identified the second vulnerable Unionist seats - South Down and Mid-Ulster. South Down has validity but he overstates the risk to the second Mid-Ulster seat. Unionism has more than two quotas with the DUP sitting on a quota the Ulster Unionists sitting close to a quota with the TUV's half quota more than enough to get them over the line. While SF improved its position it still is not enough to take a fourth seat (or if it did it could be at the SDLP's expense). The South Down result is harder to read considering the strong anti-Ruane factor in the recent Westminster results (even 2000 Sinn Fein voters couldn't stomach her) and boundary changes certainly do make the second seat more vulnerable but 2015 is probably the more likely date that 2011 (by which time it may have ceased to exist if the government reforms go through).
He claims that:
"...elsewhere there is not a lot to be gained."
This wilfully ignores nationalist seats which are potentially vulnerable to Unionism in his permutations e.g. South Antrim, North Antrim (as well as West Belfast and South Belfast although both require work) and that it could help maintain the electoral shut-out of nationalism in East Antrim and Strangford. There is potentially a fifth seat in North Down for Unionism at the expense of the Greens (with the caveat of the difficulty in interpreting the recent election result). He also fails to acknowledge a potential benefit that United Unionism creates the possibility of better transfer management reducing leakage and thus vulnerability of seats.
He therefore makes a prediction of a United Unionism delivering 52 seats and then says this will have little impact on ministries. This is only correct if his questionable maths occurs. If Unionism did grow it becomes a different ball game not in terms of number of Executive posts but the order of the early choices. (Although in the best case scenario we'll be selecting less minsiters anyway.)
He accepts it will secure the first ministership but the threat of this is becoming seriously over-played in the media. However, he fails to grasp the greater strategic opportunity. This move would essentially copper-fasten devolution from most political threats in 2011 and highly probably 2015. If devolution is operated for a period of 3 full assembly terms then it is truly bedded in. The then apparent failure of devolution and cross-border bodies to deliver the predicted United Ireland will mean northern nationalism is in an ideological cul-de-sac. This would creating new opportunities for politics in Northern Ireland (that especially civic unionists say they wish to see).