Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

The election 1) Northern Ireland

Well, the votes are now in, and I have been grinding through them to put them up on my elections site. And my conclusions, going from hard-line Unionist to Sinn Féin, are as follows:

The Traditional Unionist Voice is finished. Even a repetition of last year's Euro-election vote share would not have necessarily ensured viability. But none of the candidates, apart from Jim Allister in North Antrim, was even able to get enough votes for a decent shout at an Assembly seat; and Allister's own vote had halved from its rumoured level in North Antrim last June. His concession speech sounded to me rather like a winding-up speech for the party. The fact is that few people are sufficiently outraged by the DUP/SF settlement to want to actively vote against it, and that the TUV did not offer a credible means of overthrowing it (see analysis from "Turgon", a TUV insider, here). Lyle Cubitt, standing against both Allister and Ian Paisley junior on the platform that neither was hardline enough, got just over 500 votes.

The Democratic Unionist Party lost over a quarter of its votes and its leader's seat. They knew this was going to be a tough election - I asked one activist why they were not working harder on South Belfast, which on the numbers should have been their top target; he replied that they were fighting a defensive campaign, without hope of gains, which of course also explains their withdrawal from North Down. Looking at it from a hard-headed strategic point of view, the votes are mostly retrievable - if the TUV disappears, they will come back naturally; also the DUP will not abstain from the fray in North Down or Fermanagh-South Tyrone in future years. The leader's seat is a different matter. Robinson's image among his own core constituency has obviously been irrevocably tarnished: he was simply unable to answer straight questions about the famous £5 strip of land, and his reputation as a blunt, straight talker, cultivated over many years, simply disintegrated. On the night, the DUP were clearly closing ranks to defend their wounded warrior, but I imagine that the party's smarter members (and there are several) may like me come to the conclusion that the person, not the policy, was their problem.

For the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force, both personality and policy played a part in the debacle that saw the UUP fail to return a single member to Westminster - and let's remember that ten years ago they held ten of the eighteen seats! So many things were wrong with their campaign that it is difficult to know where to start. The proposition that Northern Ireland's voters actually want to participate in the politics of Great Britain always struck me as a bold proposition with little actual proof, or rather with considerable evidence against it from previous elections. As a moderate Catholic myself without strong sentiment for a united Ireland, I should surely have been part of the target audience for this project; but I never felt that Reg Empey was talking to me, and I noted that the most prominent Catholics involved a) were not very prominent and b) abandoned ship when it became clear that it was not going anywhere. Finally, the approach to the three most winnable constituencies was simply bizarre. It is not necessarily a bad thing if your candidate in the second most gainable seat is best known as a Freddy Mercury impersonator; it does become a problem if he is known for nothing else at the end of the campaign. It is also a problem if in your most gainable seat you a) can't pick a candidate, b) sack the candidate when he has been picked for expressing views which are identical to those of Conservative front-benchers, and c) parachute in the party leader from the far side of Belfast. But both of those problems pale into insignificance beside the casual discarding of the party's one sitting MP, and endorsing as her potential replacement a recent and visibly opportunistic defector from another party. This isn't just a matter of poor pollicy choice (though the only policy choice that I saw being made - opposing the devolution of policing and justice - was indeed a poor one); it is a matter of lousy planning and poor leadership. Sir Reg meets his Assembly team tomorrow, and I expect he will be discussing the timetable of the election of his successor with them. (Among the gloom, Danny Kennedy's performance in Newry & Armagh stands out as a bright spot; but Mike Nesbitt's similar uptick in Strangford is probably a more transient result of the Robinson factor.) See more insider discussion here.

I know little about the Rodney Connor campaign in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, but I was surprised that he didn't win. The well-informed Turgon comments that Connor may have been unable to motivate all of his potential voters because, in essence, he had a reputation for being too nice to Catholics. If there are indeed five voters who failed to vote for him for that reason, they fully deserve the representation that they got. One other conclusion to be drawn here, at a point when there is lots of talk about Unionist unity, is that the one specific initiative of that nature in this campaign actually failed.

Lady Sylvia Hermon actually got fewer votes than Connor, but was more fortunate in her geography and opponents. Her 63% vote share, compared to the 2005 figures, clearly came about 30% from the DUP, 31% from her own support last time, and 2% from further squeezing of the other parties with candidates. It was a storming performance, and it looks like the seat is hers as long as she wants it.

Alliance got its best percentage result in a Westminster election since 1997, total votes up by about 50% from 2005, and most particularly got deputy leader Naomi Long elected, the first time the party has had an MP since the brief defection of Stratton Mills in the early 1970s. Combined with the appointment of party leader David Ford as minister for justice last month, it's been an extraordinary few weeks for the party. (There are wobbles in the results for East Antrim and North Down, both explicable by local factors which will probably be less of an issue next year.)

The Green Party did not score particularly well, but there were special circumstances in their strongest area (see above under Sylvia Hermon).

The SDLP will be relieved to have held all three seats. The South Belfast result was particularly interesting, with McDonnell's majority greater than the support of the absent Shinners, and yet Alliance doubling its vote too, with Unionist support decreasing. The slow drift of votes to SF elsewhere continues, but it's also notable that all three SDLP seats currently benefit (though do not depend) on moderate cross-community support. The UUP need to look at why they have been unable to pull this off in the other direction. (Incidentally, the fact that the SDLP take the Labour whip is rarely cited as a factor in their support; yet further non-evidence for the idea that Northern Irish voters yearn to participate in mainland politics.)

Sinn Féin have four or five good reasons to cheer, depending on how you count: five members of parliament re-elected, and a four-vote margin for Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh-South Tyrone. The party also begins to look serious in North Belfast, in the event of further Unionist disarray. If I were advising them, my one concern would be that turnout in Nationalist-held seats fell noticeably more than in Unionist-held seats. If your supporters start to lose the habit of voting for you, it can be difficult to woo them back.

I have seen some loose talk, as people add up the numbers, of Labour or the Conservatives doing a deal with the "Ulster Unionists" to form a government. Folks, the "Ulster Unionists" have no seats. The five Shinners will not come to the House of Commons under any conceivable circumstances - this was literally the principle that the party was founded on, it is the meaning behind their name. Labour have four certain supporters from the remaining thirteen (Sylvia Hermon and the three SDLP members). Naomi is her own woman, not in the Alliance Party's Lib Dem wing (which is in any case not large), but she is probably closer to Clegg than to either of the other two. The eight DUP votes are genuinely up for grabs, and the obvious carrot to tempt them will be protection of Northern Ireland from the coming public spendng cuts. This won't matter if the Tories do a deal with the Lib Dems, since the two together have a clear majority, but under almost any other scenario it becomes very important indeed.
Tags: uk: election: 2010, world: northern ireland
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