Nothing much changes in Northern Ireland politics, on the surface.
So when three of eighteen Westminster seats have new Members of Parliament does that represent significant change, or just a wee bit of a shuffle? What do the percentages and numbers mean for the Assembly elections in 2016?
The three seats changing were Alliance Party losing its only seat in East Belfast, the DUP losing a seat in East Antrim and Sinn Fein losing ‘Bobby’s seat’ in Fermanagh South Tyrone.
It would be fair to say the Unionist Parties ganged up on the Alliance Party in East Belfast. Naomi Long won the seat in 2010 in the wake of a scandal-storm that raged around Peter Robinson. The Alliance Party position in respect of flag flying was hardly going to endear itself to the loyalist population. With all other unionist Parties standing back, and in spite of the DUP being an unloved Party, an Alliance defeat was always on the cards. Naomi Long will not be missed: she will, however, no doubt be back in the mix in the year ahead, either Assembly or quango land.
At least Naomi Long turned up at Westminster and took her seat. Michelle Gildernew will not be missed for a whole range of different reasons, not least the Sinn Fein abstentionist policy with respect to Westminster. It will be hard to unseat Tom Elliott from Fermanagh South Tyrone. He loves the County and its people and will be an outstanding representative of the most westerly Parliamentary Constituency. It was his offer of representation to the Constituency that probably won through at the margins that matter in a seat where the previous majority was single digit.
In South Antrim, William McCrea won back the seat in 2005 against a tide of antipathy towards David Trimble and again in 2010 where the opposition was the ill-fated UCUNF UUP/Conservative tie-up with Sir Reg Empey standing (never far from Trimble’s side). That is important because in 2005 McCrea polled around 40% of the vote, and in 2015 only 30% – a drop of 10%. in comparison the UUP in 2005 had just three percent less than the its vote in 2015 (29.6%/32.7%).
The idea promoted by Mike Nesbitt that Danny Kinihan represents an endorsement of socially-liberal brand of unionism falls on two counts. First, because Tom Elliott does not spring to mind when that statement is made, and second because the win in South Antrim was not replicated in Upper Bann in the other strongly contested seat where the UUP believed it was going to win. Interestingly, again looking at 2005/2015, in 2005 the UUP gained 25.4% of the vote, while in 2015 it grows 2.5% to 27.9% (much the same as in South Antrim). But across the same period the DUP vote is also greater, from 31.3% in 2005 to 32.7% in 2015 (sure, a slight decline from 2010, but still holding the advantage).
Whatever the UUP vote represents it is not a clear endorsement of anything much, or the ‘remarkable turnaround’ as Alex Kane suggests. Newton Emerson probably summed the UUP position best in the Sunday Times (10/05/15 £):
“…, the outcome of the battle within Unionism is unclear because the UUP was all over the place – politically, tactically and literally.”
He adds: “Mike Nesbitt… has almost certainly saved his own position by returning his Party to Westminster, but this success comes with no clear distinguishing message for the electorate or for his colleagues.”
The UUP should do well in 2016, but not spectacularly so.
For the DUP the gain of East Belfast probably outweighs the loss of South Antrim; a seat where Willie McCrea always seemed to poll less than the Party acheived in other elections. Across the country, on a like for like basis, the DUP increased its vote 2010-2015 by 0.7%, even though the UUP also gained 0.8 (15.2%-16%, although much of this might be FST where no party stood in 2010). The DUP will also note that on share of the 2015 vote, the much heralded UUP gain (Council, not the crash of Europe) of 1.5% in 2014 (16.7%) from the 15.2% vote in 2011 (exactly the same as its 2010 Westminster percentage vote) shows a halving of that gain. With a quick reshuffle of the Stormont Ministerial team, the DUP will be feeling relatively comfortable moving towards the 2016 Assembly elections. Peter Robinson has won back East Belfast, and set in place his succession whenever he choses to leave the stage.
It is hard to comment on the total Alliance vote given that it lost its only seat in a contest that boiled down to DUP v the rest, and in an entirely negative campaign by all. While the overall percentage poll went up, like that of the UUP, its vote was all over the place. Hard to project this into the 2016 Assembly election in any meaningful way other than to suggest it won’t do any worse than previously, perhaps.
The most interesting aspect of the 2015 Westminster election is the increased turnout, and just how those votes spread. With more than 40,000 additional votes cast in 2015, compared to the 2010 Westminster poll, Sinn Fein added just more than 4000 to its total, although losing one percentage point of the total vote (25.5-24.5%). The SDLP lost over 10,000 and three percentage points. In contrast, the DUP added over 15,000, UUP added 12,000 without the UCUNF package (the Conservatives now separately polled over 9,000). Alliance added almost 20,000 votes. TUV/UKIP were up 10,000 which might be enough in 2016 to steal an extra seat or two here or there (at the last count) for one or other Party; at present more likely to be UKIP gaining.
While we could dwell on arguments over the influence of pacts and the presence of more/less candidates in different constituencies, the numbers are fairly stark. Unionists, as well as Alliance and other non-nationalist smaller parties, clearly gained from the increased vote, and more generally. Conversely, this election is the second, consecutive, election where the republican/nationalist vote has shrunk in percentage terms.
As an outside observer it does seem odd that while SF lost a seat, and gained little in heartlands, it is the SDLP pulling itself apart after a lacklustre campaign that still saw all three if its MPs returned to the House of Commons. (Though frankly, the SDLP always seemed to begrudge McDonnell the leadership from the day and hour he was selected.) Outside those three constituencies the SDLP presented a large number of new young faces, which could stand it in a good place for the 2016 Assembly election; lack of name recognition may have impacted on its vote just past? Though as with Sinn Fein, the SDLP does seem to have suffered what is being described by closer observers as a ‘malaise’.
The usual cheerleaders are long on the problem existing, in detail, but short on what it is what to do about it all. Blaming the “communal drum beating from Twaddell” and “ethnic electoral pacts” for an increased Unionist vote, which somehow has suppressed republican/nationalist voting (?) is just republican cant. It doesn’t explain the People Before Profit vote of almost 20% in West Belfast – up from just under 5% in the 2011 Assembly elections (not many more votes through almost 8% on lower turnout in the 2011 Westminster by-election) which surely means one less seat for Sinn Fein in the 2016 Assembly election. Solutions elsewhere (same factory) are a bit wishful. If republicanism/nationalism wants to look deeper at its failing electoral allure perhaps it needs to look at the paucity of its offer with respect to the day-to-day lives of its electorate.
The current republican/nationalist offer amounts to an aspiration for ‘Irish Unity’ which no-one denies, but is generations away from (if ever) realistically fulfilled. Meanwhile the presumption that all nationalists are a) Catholic and b) socialist/left belies the demographic changes and a sizeably content and otherwise engaged nationalist-lite middle class for whom aspiration (of an economic sort) and good (stable) government are top of the family agenda. A constant diet of anti-austerity rhetoric, political gaming on welfare, and betting the wrong way on a Labour led Government of sorts post General Election has left nationalism with nothing but failure. Downer.
To subscribe to a notion that all nationalists believe the same, just shaded differently in two greens with a red lining, is not much different to believing all Catholics (or Protestants) will vote solely on factors of green (orange), and is as offensive and patronisingly false as Gerry Kelly’s pitch to North Belfast (Catholic) voters. The anti-austerity campaigning for both Sinn Fein and SDLP has been perhaps slightly less damaging than that of the UK Labour Party, but it hasn’t been a winning ticket for anyone. Even the SNP focused more on an anti-Conservative ‘voice for Scotland at Westminster’ campaign rather than emphasise the economy (which has been ticking along OK in Scotland under the Coalition Government at Westminster) or placing independence to the fore.
The lesson from Scotland for republicans/nationalists is prove competency and ability in delivering to the electorate. Even through there are holes in the SNP record, for example in education, it has generally performed well in Government (overseeing austerity) and the independence referendum has distracted the Labour Party from the reality of its place in Holyrood (that of opposition). Northern Ireland is very different to Scotland, but it does seem as if unionists are benefiting from being seen to be more willing to provide positive leadership and face up to the challenges of Government (and Opposition), rather than be relentlessly negative.
So for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, continuing to fight each other over who is going to stop a programme of welfare reform that both parties have agreed to in agreements and at the Executive table, most recently the Stormont House Agreement, looks like poor leadership. Claiming to ‘protect the vulnerable’ is laudable. However, many fail to see how welfare benefits well above their own family incomes is justified while health and education services for all are squeezed and debt is piled up for their children to pay.
The electorate won’t buy rhetoric that fails to deliver stability and the prospect of a positive future for their families, here and now. The past is past, and aspiration is a nice to have rather than immediate priority for most families working hard to make ends meet. There is little by way of evidence that either party is making a positive contribution to stable and competent government (just being there no longer counts): that is as good as reason as any as to why votes are, slowly, slipping away from the republican/nationalist parties. The honest position might be to tack leftwards, but that would also necessitate leaving Government which neither Party seems willing to contemplate.
Time to move on.
Unionism is perhaps fragmented, but within that process it is quietly undergoing a considerable rethink and is being re-energised by debate driven by smaller insurgents – disunity suits its character, and there is every sense that unionism will be the stronger for all its disagreement; indeed, stronger in its disagreement, finding a voice for both Opposition and Government. That will continue to encourage engagement, and lends a frisson of excitement to political life (even though it may be uncomfortable for some at times).
For republicanism/nationalism, there is no sign of how or why its losing streak might end; and absolutely no thinking either in or out of the box; in Government, yet absolutely off planet ‘economic realities’. Prospects for now seem to be either internal fratricide or to hunker down and focus on 2016. Neither prospect is remotely relevant to the voters day-to-day, who will nevertheless be expected to place their preferences on the ballot papers in less than twelve months time for the new Northern Ireland Assembly. Unlike unionism, republican/nationalism seems old and never new.
Interesting times ahead. Yet another election year is upon us.