Election results 2014: Unionism’s natural internal level

The dust is beginning to settle on the election. In actual fact the dust settled fairly quickly as there was not much created. On the nationalist / republican side there seemed remarkably little though I will leave discussion of that to those better qualified. On the unionist side there was slightly more but only slightly and if the results were compared say to the mainland GB elections one would say business as usual.

Diane Dodds gained a small percentage at the European election but the party lost a small percentage at the council elections which seemed to be regarded more seriously – though it is worth noting that the DUP always tends to do less well at council elections than it does at Westminster or Stormont elections. The DUP’s failure to eat any further into the UUP vote may be of some concern but again this is clutching at straws from those opposed to the DUP. The relatively minor nature of the changes in the election was demonstrated by the rapid way in which the largely anti DUP media moved on to the Pastor McConnell story and forgot about the election. One notable defeat, which saddened me personally, was that of Lee Reynolds. Lee is to my mind one of the best strategists in unionism: then again his defeat might allow him to devote more time to strategizing which could be to unionism’s advantage. Overall though Robinson’s description of the DUPs elections as like the curate’s egg saying – good and bad in places seemed about correct.

The DUP still have by far the largest number of elected representatives and whilst they do not have a monopoly of talent they certainly have more talented politicians than the other parties. Furthermore with this election campaign they seem to have stayed away from any significant sign of the arrogance and sense of entitlement which they seemed to display prior to the 2009 European elections. It looked as though that was beginning to reemerge during last summer over the Maze shrine. However, they have managed at least for the moment to put that behind them.

If there is little to be said about the largest party in unionism its small leakage of support has provided proportionally greater gains for the smaller unionist parties.

The TUV did well by surviving and indeed progressing a little. It needs to be remembered that at the last Stormont elections Jim Allister limped home sub quota: gone the triumph of the 2009 European election. The chances that Jim would return to anyway near the 2009 result seemed almost impossible but come close to it he did. This is largely a personal vote achieved by his work at Stormont and which has led to respect grudging or otherwise from a number of quarters albeit it mainly on the unionist side. At Europe Allister seems to have managed to bring together a coalition of people to support him which includes those opposed to the process per se; those who want to see it extensively modified and those who are simply protesting.

This personal support is likely to ensure he keeps his North Antrim seat at the next Stormont election. The TUV has also increased its representation to 13 seats despite a fall in total number of councillors. Whilst pleasing for them this is not a major breakthrough. It makes the TUV less of a one man band but it is still a band with one dominant player. It probably means long term survival for the party but far from guarantees what Allister must really want which is a couple of colleagues at Stormont.

A less dramatic but possibly more significant issue was the UUP’s performance. Jim Nicholson’s vote did fall a little but considering his relatively low profile and increasing age this may be less concerning than Mick has suggested below. The mooted suggestion that Nicholson may stand aside at some point during this European Parliament would seem sensible: Tom Elliott would look like an obvious replacement choice.

The improvement in the council elections especially with some modest successes in Belfast is much more relevant. More than anything this election has begun to reverse the narrative of gradual decline which the UUP seemed to have be stuck in for years. They have also begun to attract genuinely talented new people as councillors such as Graham Craig in Botanic.

This election has also, to an extent, vindicated Mike Nesbitt’s leadership. When recently Martin McGuinness attacked Nesbitt’s leadership of the UUP it struck me that maybe Nesbitt was doing something right. That is not a knee jerk comment but rather an observation that McGuinness was taking enough notice of the UUP to feel the need to attack it and Nesbitt’s leadership. The challenge for Nesbitt will be whether he can turn some of the council gains into MLAs.

The other parties seem less relevant apart maybe from NI21. The garden centre Prod was given an opportunity to come out and vote for a party so well versed in shrubbery that its logo should maybe be the dinosaur at Ballylesson garden centre. In the event the garden centre Prods seemed as gnome like as ever: existing only in the fevered imaginations of gardeners with delusions (unlike Ballylesson’s excellent dinosaur which always pleases my children).

The other function of NI21 and in particular its complete meltdown prior to the election is to illustrate the utter folly which electing Basil McCrea rather than Tom Elliott would have been. Some years ago now I predicted that if the UUP elected McCrea it would result in a complete disaster and many, many “progressive” unionists told me what a fool I was. Those progressives may now have gone from slugger but it is worth remembering that people did suggest McCrea as the great hope for the UUP. The allegations about him, extremely serious as they are, are not the central issue (they remain currently allegations). Rather the practically unbelievable handling of internal issues and the clearly highly divisive and egocentric leadership were well known about in most political circles years ago. Despite that he was lauded as a far superior leader to Elliott. The other comedy group maybe worth mention are the NI Tories who were going to provide a real alternative: in Northern Ireland they function as the Ulster branch of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Overall what seems to have been happening is what one might call a settling of the unionist vote into what currently feels, for now, its natural state. That seems to be with a largely but far from completely dominant DUP, a sizeable but smaller UUP and a small TUV. Clearly nothing stays the same forever in politics but currently that seems to be about where unionism natural internal level should be.

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