The unionist electorate is getting a stark message from the largest unionist party.

Launching its manifesto, Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson didn't hold back.

"In just seven days' time Northern Ireland will go to the polls in what will be one of the most consequential elections in our history," he told voters.

The choice he presented was between a solid vote for the DUP or splitting the unionist ticket, watching Sinn Féin win most seats and taking the First Minister's position.

That would supercharge the unity agenda and the years ahead would be spent wrangling over a border poll, he claimed.

Detractors say this is classic DUP electioneering, using the politics of fear to rally voters to its ranks.

Supporters say it is simply an acknowledgement of political realities.

So the unionist electorate is being presented with a binary choice by its biggest party.

What this election will tell us is whether that electorate is listening to the rhetoric.

For years the Ulster Unionist Party watched the DUP closing in the rearview mirror before it eventually overtook them as the principal party of unionism.

Under the leadership of former soldier Doug Beattie, it now espouses a more liberal brand of unionism.

UUP's Doug Beattie

It also takes a more pragmatic line on the Northern Ireland Protocol and stopped attending protest rallies, saying they were raising tensions.

The DUP has regularly attended the rallies alongside the smaller Traditional Unionist Voice, led by the uncompromising Jim Allister.

There has been much talk of unionist unity and the importance of supporting fellow unionist candidates in this election.

But the Ulster Unionists have differentiated themselves from the rest, especially around the issue of the protocol and on social issues.

That may help win them back some of its base which has drifted to the centre Alliance Party over recent elections.

But it could also mean they can't depend, to the same extent, on transfers from fellow unionist in the upcoming election, says a former Stormont insider.

TUV leader Jim Allister

Alison Grundle was a ministerial special adviser for a number of years and is a keen observer of unionist politics.

"We have the potential for a big split in unionism. Where that pans out and where it'll be important is in transfers.

"So the people who vote for the DUP will vote DUP, the people who vote for other parties will vote for them.

"But will they transfer to other unionist parties who take a different approach to the protocol.

"Ulster Unionist voters will, I think, transfer mostly to Alliance.

"And I'm not convinced the DUP voters will, in great numbers, transfer to the UUP."

And in an election where transfers are critical to the destination of keenly contested last seats in Northern Ireland’s five-seater constituencies - that could have a big bearing on the overall outcome.

So unionism has its internal challenges to contend with but it also faces a significant external threat.

The Alliance Party has been building support in recent years. This could be its breakthrough year - significantly increasing its Stormont representation from the current eight seats to as many as 13 or 14 MLAs.

That would take it from the fifth biggest party in the Assembly, leapfrogging the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, to the third largest bloc.

The growth shows that for many voters in Northern Ireland almost 25 years on from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional question is no longer the be all and end all of politics.

Voters want a stable, functioning government fixing huge problems with the health service and addressing the cost of living crisis.

"Society is changing, society has changed," says Alison Grundle.

"I think what we are seeing here is the beginning of a trend away from constitutional politics being dominant here.

"The increasing support for non-constitutional parties in the polls is significant.

"The DUP, political unionism, is probably going to take brunt of that in this election, but I think in the next election Sinn Féin is going to feel it as well."

But the question of whether Sinn Féin or the DUP will win most seats and claim the First Minister's position is still a big motivating factor in this poll.

Last time, Sinn Féin polled exceptionally well and will have to hold most if not all the 27 seats it won.

The DUP did not have a great election but still took 28 seats.

For both, this election will be about who consolidates best and concedes the fewest seats.

A Sinn Féin first minister would leave the DUP in a quandary.

The Office of First and Deputy First Minister is a joint one, but the optics of a DUP nominee serving in the deputy first minister position are terrible for the party.

Its insistence that it won't return to the Executive until its Northern Ireland Protocol concerns are addressed gives it a little breathing space.

Under the legislation, politicians would have six months to sort something out after the votes are counted next weekend.

If they don't there will be the prospect of another election.

The electorate would probably be in a pretty unforgiving mood by then.


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