European Election – AFTERSHOCK

The final outcome of the Northern Ireland European Election poll is not that much different to that anticipated by thedissenter in early May. Even so, the election has has the potential to shake the consensus on which the Belfast Agreement stands or falls.  It was a better than expected election for Jim Allister of the TUV.


The voting percentages show little change for any Party other than the DUP (2004/2009).

Alliance and Greens may be cock-a-hoop at their result, except that closer analysis shows they gained no more than the minor parties altogether in 2004. This takes account of the lower turnout, a drop of around 65,000 votes, to a more ‘normal’ level of voting in the European elections of around 43% – still a way to go with the UK turnout of around 34%, though roughly equal to the European-wide average (though some countries have compulsory voting).

Election details are here.

Even though Barbre DeBrun was elected on the first count, and topped the poll, Sinn Fein worked hard to stand still in this election.  Same for Alban Maginness and the SDLP.  The SDLP at least halted decline and saw the Sinn Fein percentage of the vote drop very marginally (0.3%).  While the story of the election was on the split in the Unionist vote, the nationalist parties are in a rut.  Sinn Fein’s rut is on both sides of the border – they lost their one MEP, and a decent performance in local government elections held on the same day has since been spoiled by resignations.

For Sinn Fein the question must be ‘where next?’.  For all nationalists, it must surely be dawning that a United Ireland is generations away, if ever.  The Republic of Ireland is preoccupied with its economy. Moreover, across Europe voters turned away from the left, on which both main nationalist parties loosely base their political approach: though interesting to see Sinn Fein lose in Dublin to a real socialist suggesting a squeeze for Sinn Fein between left and right.

Sinn Fein’s campaign for a United Ireland (in America) does a lot to help Jim Allister’s proposition that the Belfast Agreement was not a ‘settlement’: another Sinn Fein contradiction; if we cannot go ‘back’ to pre-Belfast Agreement, neither can we go forward to a United Ireland if a ‘settlement’ exists. If  Sinn Fein’s next step is to go off to America and argue for a United Ireland there, as Alex Kane points out in the News Letter, it might as well as no-one in Ireland is listening.

In the time since the election the SDLP hasn’t really done anything much. The post-election shuffle of committee positions in Stormont passed by almost unremarked.

The Unionist vote split broadly three ways: DUP, Diane Dodds, 88,346; UCUNF, Jim Nicholson, 82,893; TUV, Jim Allister, 66,197.

As this was an STV PR election, lets start with Jim Nicholson who topped the Unionist vote at the end of the count.  The decline in voter numbers, though a marginal increase in the percentage share due to the overall decrease in voting, leaves it impossible to know if the new collaboration with the Conservative Party was a benefit or not to the Ulster Unionists.  Either the UUP vote could have been worse, and the Tory link attracted middle class voters who would not have otherwise bothered. Or, the UUP have bottomed and the Tory link has been a convenient financial leg up until fortunes improve.

Of course the Ulster Unionists hope that the split between the DUP and TUV will deliver an extra seat in the upcoming, Westminster elections. Perhaps. Any seat would be a bonus given that it seems likely that North Down will be lost one way or another.

More interesting was the transfer of the majority of Jim Allister’s vote to Jim Nicholson.

It is not entirely correct to view Jim Allister’s TUV as ‘integrationalist’. Integrationalist has long been used as a term of abuse by devolutionists to indicate that this was a lesser Unionism, in some way; mostly to suggest that relying on the ‘untrustworthy’ Westminster establishment was plain foolish as it was in cahoots with the Pan-nationalist front.  Nevertheless it seems logical that if TUV voters are less enamoured with devolution, in principle, then the natural transfer would be to a Party that provides the stronger pan-UK link – a national representation through the UUP/Con collaboration.

Transfers will matter more at the next Assembly election, where those last few seats will be down to how the parties view each other, and where every Conservative as well as UUP vote (at present there is no agreement between the two parties for Assembly elections) will be as important as the TUV’s.  This triumvirate may provide a serious threat to the DUP in the Assembly elections because it would probably mean the final transfers will see Unionists other than the DUP elected.   Moreover, the addition of the TUV to the ballot paper seems, for now, to be shoring up the electoral turnout of the Unionist vote thereby increasing the total non-DUP vote.

The UUP have picked up on one of Jim Allister’s election themes – that the DUP/Sinn Fein led government is inherently unstable. Since the election the UUP have increasingly built up a picture that suggests that government in Northern Ireland is failing.  However, the UUP offers no alternative and no analysis as to why it would be different with an alternative arrangement of the chairs around the Executive table – currently the only possible outcome of an Assembly election.  It has hinted that a Conservative Government would bring change, though exactly what change is not elaborated – event though this doesn’t square with David Camerons endorsement of current arrangements.  To some extent this ambiguity assists the TUV: it reinforces the message that change is possible.

Since the European election the UUP is too gleefully destabilising the very institutional structures on which its future depends – the Assembly is its electoral lifeline. While seeking to undermine the DUP/Sinn Fein axis may be amusing, with some good quips, but where’s the strategy? The reshuffle of the Executive pack following an Assembly election is likely to create a TUV ‘opposition’ in Stormont, and  a Sinn Fein First Minister.  Good for democracy, but something the UUP voter is unlikely to see as attractive, and voting in Northern Ireland can be hugely tactical.  This may undermine part of that gain they would have hoped for by the TUV splitting the DUP vote, as the UUP would see it.

For the DUP the most worrying statistic much be that the overall final vote of 23.6 for the final DUP votes and 27% for the UUP/Con takes the vote split back to the electoral shares of the 2001 Westminster poll (22%/27%) or further back to the 1985 local elections (24%/29%) – 5% of Jim Allister’s vote did not transfer to anyone. This places perspective in the challenge to the DUP following the European election.

In many ways the electoral performance of Diane Dodds has left the DUP with a conundrum. In one election the DUP has lost an electorate vote that took years to build.  Where does it go to rebuild that electorate?

On the one hand it is clear that the votes borrowed from the Ulster Unionists and other liberal/integrationalist unionists have now left the DUP, and are unlikely to return. On the other hand, there is a deeply dissatisfied DUP vote that has found the confidence to vote TUV. As the DUP know from vote-building 2001-2008 the first task is to make the voter comfortable in being prepared to vote differently to their norm, and then to capture and build on that vote.  For the DUP, the Jim Allister vote represents both the loss of the votes from natural Ulster Unionists and, more worryingly from natural DUP voters.

If the Ministerial shuffle of this past month is meant to impress, then the DUP is failing to understand the challenge ahead.  What is the message of the reshuffle? Double jobbing is going? Mostly: good; but Peter Robinson has been at pains to stress that this had been planned anyway.

The DUP lacks a narrative that will either mollify those who are attracted to the TUV because of its clarity or, because it fears the TUV vote more than UCUNF, attract those who might be supportive of their success in managing the current power-sharing arrangements. So while the appointment of Nelson McCausland may be a sop to the ‘hard-core’ voter and perhaps make a start on attracting back some of those who voted TUV, it will equally annoy the very UUP/Con type voter the DUP needs to perchance attract.

So what then of the TUV?  The conditions for Jim Allister to gain his European vote has been rumbling for some time – like a volcano, it rumbles before it blows. All parties try to paint the TUV as variously a ‘one man show’, integrationalist (as if relying on Westminster was worse than sharing power with Sinn Fein), ‘intent on taking us back to the bad old days’ or ‘extreme’.

Unionists would look on the last two points and point out that Jim Allister’s dissent from the ‘new order’ is not the same as ‘dissent’ within republicanism.  He has no guns.  Both the ‘integrationalist’ tag and the ‘bad old days’ warning are based on a presumption that the current Belfast Agreement arrangements are perfectly acceptable. But neither the DUP, nor the UUP, believes that they are. The DUP agreed with the outline of Jim Allister’s critique of the arrangements before they returned from St.Andrews. The UUP hints that change will happen.

Party depth is probably the most difficult challenge ahead for Jim Allister.  For intelligence and integrity (even if you don’t agree with him) he stands heads above most of the rest of the political characters peddling their political wares in the ‘huckster’s shop’ as described by Sir Reg Empey (and watch here).  Except, of course, Jim Allister is not in the Assembly. Nor does he have any DUP defectors in the Assembly. He does have a handful of Councillors; in more way than one, a handful.

Any successful Party must have discipline – something the DUP still has, and the UUP seems to have gained some along with Conservative Party finance.  It must also have some depth, with an ability to promote its messages on a range of fronts.  To do that, it is necessary to have a group of competent advocates who are able to widen the commentary, particularly in target constituencies. Competency means staying on message, building positive profile and moving the Party agenda forward (even if only slightly, a bit at a time as the DUP did 1985-2001, and then with vigour and depth 2001-2008).

The DUP has responded quickly to the European Election result, but without any clear direction or purpose. At least the DUP have realised there is a shift in the Unionist mood, and that the TUV fight is with them in the first instance. The UUP are too busy talking up their ‘success’ to realise that they are still standing on sinking electoral sands.

Jim Allister has no more need to outline details of his future framework for political institutions in Northern Ireland than David Cameron does to detail his economic/tax plans for the nation so far from an election.  Allister’s core demand for change is shared by both the DUP and the UUP.  That change is possible is confirmed by Sinn Fein. The Alliance Party could benefit in this atmosphere if it wasn’t so busy chasing the potential of the Policing and Justice Ministry.

There is an electorate out there that is either disengaged or angry enough to vote anyone but ‘the consensus’. There are more votes out there for the TUV; mostly DUP, though plenty of others seeking a positive alternative that is credible and intellectually respectable.

The size of Jim Allister’s vote in the European Election was a shock to the political parties at Stormont because it showed a deep crack in ‘the consensus’ on which the political structures arising from the Belfast Agreement rely.

In the aftershock of the election all the focus is on the DUP’s response; though that is not to say the reaction to the vote by other parties is of no consequence.  Pretending that is not the case is delusional. For Jim Allister, small snipes seem to be enough for not to keep his quarry unsettled.  The UUP is doing half his job for him by arguing the instability and paralysis in the power-sharing arrangements. Sinn Fein, and certain SDLP representatives, continue to demonise the Loyal Orders in such a way as to show the lack of tolerance or acceptance from nationalism of a shared future – so why vote for Unionists who believe in one?

Jim Allister may well need to create a more positive narrative that has a principled core around which more Unionists, from its many shades, feel comfortable to coalesce. He may need to add depth to the TUV. However, the behaviour of main Parties at Stormont since the European Election is only helping to confirm those who voted for Jim Allister that their’s was the right choice.  At least in the short term, if Jim Allister does nothing much over the summer, things will continue to rumble along to his advantage.

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