What has changed?
The 2010 Westminster election is over. While the poll outcome was inconclusive the upshot is a decisive shift in British Politics where a progressive coalition has burst through the liberal centre/right. In the process, there were no important phone calls to the Northern Ireland parties, who now sit on the Parliamentary margins.
The debates on national television provided an energy to the national election. Locally the election campaign was as lacklustre and uninspiring as the Party leaders on the local TV debates.
On the nationalist side the new leader of the SDLP simply argued a greener case than Sinn Fein, ceding any advantage new leadership might offer in setting the electoral debate and regaining ground in the future. Sinn Fein organised a campaign that seemed more a prelude to the 2011 Assembly elections and must be disappointed that they made little inroad into the SDLP vote on polling day.
The obvious decline in SDLP votes since 1998 is not to the great benefit of Sinn Fein. For Westminster 2001, the high point of nationalist turnout, the SDLP had 168,873 and Sinn Fein 175,932; in 2010, 110,970 and 171,942 respectively. In percentage terms Sinn Fein is clearly outvoting the SDLP, but it has made no gains in number of votes. The overall Nationalist/Republican vote appears relatively static.
Republicans, in particular, have made much of an inroad into defeating Unionism, electorally. While Unionism was once dominant electorally, this was at a time when nationalists probably failed to even register to vote. The heady early 1970s, when unionist voters turned out in great numbers, was not a time of unionist unity. Since then, nationalists and republicans have fully engaged in the electoral process, and around 200,000 have been added to the electoral register.
Summarily, the increase in registered voters has been to the benefit of neither nationalists nor unionists. In recent years the electorate, unionist and nationalist, has slowly disengaged from politics. However, ignoring the numbers and entering the percentage game, Sinn Fein has gained as it holds its vote relative to others. Somehow, despite Sinn Fein’s project seemingly stalling, Unionist Parties are presenting a picture of unionism in crisis.
Much has been made of the apparent failure of leaders (and leadership) within Unionism, and there has been a great deal of debate since the Westminster election on the topic of what the future holds for unionism.
The numbers suggest that the Ulster Unionist Party is bumping along and has done little to regain the electoral trust that it squandered under David Trimble. Just as the UUP climbed electoral heights in the 1990s, so it has fallen to consistent lows over the past decade. The decline has been hard for a Party that still gives the impression that it still believes itself to the natural Party of Government. Although the UUP electoral arrangement with the Conservative Party has been derided, on the positive side, at least the Party could had the finance to run a campaign and the vote was probably no worse than if the arrangement hadn’t existed.
A lowly UUP ought to have been good news for the DUP. However, similar to their principal partners in the Northern Ireland Executive, the DUP has not been able to take advantage of their rival’s electoral slide. The DUP vote has been remarkably stable over the past decade. The Party immediately benefited from the mistrust of the Ulster Unionist Party; acting as the standard bearer of opposition to sharing power with Sinn Fein. In the decade from 1998, those who became disillusioned or discontented with the UUP either left politics or joined the DUP. Over this period the unionist electorate could be characterised as either being ‘for’ the UUP or ‘against’.
In the 2007 Assembly election there was still a broad expectation that the DUP would not enter Government with Sinn Fein. When they did, off the back of apparently verified decommissioning by the IRA (which seems to have missed 40% ), it can be no surprise that the DUP would suffer to some extent in the same way as the UUP. That was certainly the instance in the 2009 European Election, when Jim Allister of the TUV took a signification proportion of the unionist vote.
While the TUV did less well in the Westminster election, drift from the two main parties was nevertheless marked. Trust has gone. Yes, there was an agreed unionist candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone, and the DUP stood aside in North Down. Even so, in an election when the overall unionist vote increased on the 2007 Assembly election, the DUP must be disappointed that it cannot point to any positive electoral gain.
Nationalism performed less well than unionism in the Westminster election, albeit marginally. Yet the debate post election is on the future of unionism. Inevitably this has centred on the future of the Parties, and in particular the leaderships.
No unionist leader has much to cheer about post-election. The TUV performed poorly, though it was never likely that the European pr vote could have been replicated in the first-past-the-post Westminster poll. Still, the TUV lacked depth in its candidate selection, and Jim Allister’s political persona was one of anger. The Unionist electorate is past anger. It wants to trust again. To do that it desires confidence in a leadership can attract talent and articulate a pathway to restoring community, cultural and political confidence. The TUV was not alone in failing to meet that expectation.
Sir Reg Empey lost in South Antrim. Perhaps he has done enough service to David Cameron’s Conservatives to gain a peerage and join David Trimble, in which case his candidature was not entirely in vain. It was his close association with David Trimble that probably reduced his chances in South Antrim, where not even a hawkish David Burnside had been able to hold the seat. The electorate that punished the UUP then, and sent an unambiguous message on the leadership of David Trimble, was hardly likely to vote now for someone equally at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. Adrian Watson, the choice of the local UUP would probably have fared better as a new and local face for Westminster.
Sir Reg also lost on the wider political field. From the outset of the UUP Conservative arrangement he failed to present a convincing narrative to overcome the sense that this was a marriage of convenience: the Conservatives needed a significant electoral base in Northern Ireland and the UUP needed the money. The UUP message that Stormont was a ‘huckster’s shop’ should have had some traction with a disillusioned electorate. However, Sir Reg’s inability to bring clarity and direction to the UCUNF (UUP/Conservative) arrangement suggested that he equally unable to manage his own neighbourhood store. There was the sluggishness in agreeing candidates. Finally, for thedissenter, Fred Cobain standing as a Conservative & Unionist?
And yet, the UUP vote broadly held up across Northern Ireland. Yes, it now has no seats at Westminster. But it still has a base on which to build. On the wider national electoral front the politics of the nation has been trust into new territory with the Conservative/Liberal coalition (or is that Liberal Conservative coalition). There is deep resentment of the central Conservative Party organisation among many local Conservative constituency organisations. Although talking about decentralising power from Westminster, Cameron has strongly centralised Conservative Party organisation around his own team. This has not delivered the majority he needed; in many instances this was down to lack of flexibility in addressing local electoral campaigns: Adrian Watson is a case in point.
What became clear on election night was that the country no longer acts uniformly. The great swingometer was made redundant on a night where local electorates seemed to take a local view – resulting in massively varying swings across the country. It would suggest that future candidates will need to emphasise more local issues and rely less on national coat-tails.
In this respect there is certainly a place for more regionally based politically associations where the central party outlines core principles, but does not dictate local candidate selection and tolerates a degree of policy variance around the country. If the Conservatives and the UUP can find that balance between regional and national interests then there is a future for the UUP. Otherwise, not.
At times in the run-up to and during the election the argument of the UUP almost seemed to be that the DUP couldn’t be trusted: to which the electorate added the word ‘either’. In the end the only place that this mattered was in East Belfast, where the electorate cast a plague on the UUP and DUP. Of course the rejection of a sitting MP, and in this case the leader of the DUP, was a huge slap to Peter Robinson. In the rest of the country the DUP held its own and it seats.
The East Belfast seat was not a natural loss, had there been anyone of stature in the East Belfast DUP to have stood as an alternative to Peter Robinson: Strangford, the Westminster seat once held by Iris Robinson was retained by the DUP. The electoral strategy for the East Belfast seat has long been the strength of the Robinsons (Westminster/Assembly/Council) to bring in all others on their coat-tails. Time for a re-think.
The apparent nature of the internal politics of the DUP suggests that there is little likelihood of Robinson being replaced as leader; for reasons not that dissimilar to the earlier thedissenter piece in the wake of revelations around Iris Robinson earlier in the year. The early DUP was shaped by Ian Paisley. The latter-day DUP has been shaped by Peter Robinson. There is little obvious alternative to Peter Robinson’s leadership. Peter Robinson’s East Belfast Assembly seat is relatively secure, as one of many, which assures his leadership position where it matters most to the DUP, at Stormont.
Before bringing together all these points into a broad conclusion it is worth noting the success of Naomi Long. First, by accepting David Ford at the Executive Table, the Alliance Party has been elevated to the position of central and ‘trusted’ player. Second Naomi Long is local, and hard working. Third, Alliance has always had strength in East Belfast. Finally, she wasn’t Peter Robinson, and whether unionist or not, she isn’t perceived as nationalist.
The Alliance Party has been much stronger in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s than it has been anytime in the past decade. It still has a lot of work to do to grow its base, and there are not obviously an army of Long-type candidates to make an impact in 2011 at Stormont (and probably across 26 Local Government areas). In percentage terms it’s vote will look good where any general increase is a gain against an smaller voting public overall, though in pure numbers terms it has a long way to go. Notions of some kind of renaissance in the political centre ground are premature.
Back to the big debate, within and around Unionism. The focus of that debate is numbers, and focused on whether in the forthcoming 2011 election Sinn Fein might gain a position where it may be able to lay claim to the post of First Minister.
Since the changes following the St Andrews Agreement any party with the votes and seats necessary can lay claim to the post of First Minister. This provides for more equitable power-sharing in that it does not create a hierarchy of parties – theoretically anyone can be a First Minister. Would it make a great difference for Sinn Fein to be First Minister? If you accept Sinn Fein as a partner in Government then why not?
The most recent political push for unionist unity has arisen principally as a DUP campaign tactic to corner the UUP/Conservative arrangement, pushing at the fact that one of the certainties espoused in this arrangement was that the Conservatives were committed to stand in all 18 seats. The agreement of a candidate on a unity-style ticket in Fermanagh South Tyrone undermined the determination of the UUP/Conservative pact. Had Rodney Connor won it would have placed even greater pressure on the UUP/Conservative pact that it failed to make a similar arrangement in South Belfast.
That the tactic in Fermanagh South Tyrone failed to deliver its intended outcome still leaves the DUP in a position to argue that it only failed because it was late in the day, the electorate was unconvinced of UUP sincerity, the Conservative link lost vital votes and anything that throws blame around and away to the DUP: this is a criticism of the DUP blame game generally and not that, conversely, the DUP is ‘to blame’.
The focus on the issue of First Minister is a tactical one – a means to give purpose to closer co-operation between the parties (if not merger). Yet the real issue is not one of tactics to meet short-term and tokenistic outcomes. The failure of Sir Reg (lost seat, lost leadership) to stabilise and provide purpose to the UUP, the DUP’s failure to dismiss the TUV altogether and to regain momentum lost in 2009, reflect deeper malaise within unionist parties.
Ironically, the arrival of the TUV brought unionist voters to the polling booths and increased the overall unionist vote would suggest that disunity has its advantages, allowing the fractious and independently minded unionist voter an avenue to express discontent with established parties.
The logic of engagement by all parties in the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement is an acceptance that the Union is safe in the hands of the unionist electorate: that is the principle of consent. Unionist voters accept this and many seem content not to vote for parties that fail to reflect their concerns and provide competent government. This is not a problem for unionism alone, nationalism has a similar challenge, though seems content to lose itself in the green romantic mists of a united Ireland at the end of the rainbow. A plague on all their houses?
Addressing unionist unity from a structural perspective is bound to disappoint. Political party realignment is merely mixing decks and dishing out the job cards in a different order. The electorate is hardly likely to be impressed. Identifying a loss of voter, by class or aspiration, does not address the message sent at the Westminster election: none of the leaders of unionism presented a coherent and inspirational purpose for unionism in the twenty-first century.
A unionist should feel proud to fly the Union flag, and should not feel that it is somewhat diminished when wrapped around those who seek to lead Unionism. It should not be worn in anger, it should not cover embarrassment, and it should not be wrapped around a backroom deal. Discussion on the Union should be a matter of substance, not tactical number crunching: it is a matter for open discussion, not whispers behind closed doors.
Unionist Parties may be under threat through a loss of relative electoral strength. That does not mean that the Union is under threat: which is not to say that the Union cannot be lost. As elsewhere, this article has been an exercise in looking at the outcomes of the Westminster election and reading the runes. There are a few pointers which may shape consideration of the future for Unionists.
- The overall nationalist vote appears static.
- Nationalist voters appear just as disengaged as unionist voters.
- The UUP might consider its future within a regional/national and liberal conservative context, but is otherwise nothing but a fading reflection of better times.
- The DUP built its presence on becoming biggest: now it is, what next?
- The unionist voter seemed uninspired by any of the unionist Parties’ offers.
- The overall unionist vote benefits from disunity, not unity.
- The SDLP was dominant in 1998. What happened?
- If Sinn Fein is a worthy party for Government, and to hold a post co-equal to the First Minister then why shouldn’t it hold the post of First Minister?
- The issue of a Sinn Fein First Minister is a narrow tactical argument that distracts from the lack of attractive leadership from either the UUP or DUP, or from anywhere elsewhere in unionist circles.
- Short-term tactical considerations will not address the future of unionism as a political cause.
- The Union is safe: at least that rests with the electorate and not the politicians.
The Westminster election changed very little. The points above have been matters for varying degree of consideration for some time. The election has simply brought them to the fore. Much of that discussion has taken place at Open Unionism and in the pages of the press, and probably around the lunch tables of Stormont buildings and meeting places elsewhere.
Tactical considerations of stopping a Sinn Fein First Minister are given an air of immediacy, including an urgency on discussion of political party restructuring. The larger and more important issue of the purpose and sense of Unionist cause is receiving less attention, perhaps because there is no personal or party gain in thinking outside the box? (It is a lonely place outside the box, and risky.) How does the discussion move beyond the tactical and party political to a more central discussion on the nature and future expression of Unionism fit for the twenty-first century?
Without a common understanding of the central tenets of Unionism there is little chance of Party political unity among unionists. Unionists must know what the Union is for, holding common purpose; it must not be defined by what it is not, what it is against. The electorate wishes positive, not negative, Unionism. With that central understanding would party political unionism mean anything anyway? Is unionism an ‘ism’ at all? How do we move beyond a position of being in defence of the Union to advancing and deepening the Union? These are the questions to be the subject of Looking Forward: Part 2. Later.
*/** please note that the graphs are indicative. While every effort was made to input the numbers correctly, sometimes interpretation of orginal data was difficult. I may have designated an independent in the unionist circles when it should have been nationalist: the early 1970s was a confusing time. ’Others’ sometimes includes all but the main parties; more than just the odds and sods. Data on registered electorate and turnout was not always available, and sometimes only in percentage terms. Taking all this into account, all graphs should be viewed as broadly accurate, but mostly illustrative. If any reader wishes to repeat the exercise and find fault, the source information is found within CAIN and ARK: knock yourself out.