Chris Gilligan had a piece in Spiked Magazine a few weeks back which argued that the recent DUP success was based on long term strategy of opposition. Thus far they have enjoyed the fruits of that strategy, but he holds up the halt in Sinn Fein’s democratic advance as an example of how a prolonged political hiatus can damage a party which had previously been able to galvinise its own constituency’s sense of alienation.
It was the peace process, not the war, which was the undoing of the UUP. Initially it looked as though the UUP’s dominance was assured. The strategic shift in Irish republicanism, towards accepting British rule in Northern Ireland, provided an opportunity for the UUP to establish a new Unionism. The UUP polled well in the 1997 General Election, taking 10 Westminster seats and topping the poll at 32.7 per cent (compared with the DUP’s two seats and 13.6 per cent). The UUP was a key player in the negotiation that led to the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, while the DUP (which took a ‘No concessions to Sinn Fein/IRA’ line) excluded itself from the negotiations and was treated as a pariah by the British government.
Fast forward to 2005 and we find that the UUP has been reduced to one Westminster seat with a Northern Ireland-wide vote of under 18 per cent, compared with the DUP’s nine seats and almost 34 per cent of the vote.
But he says the DUP’s victory
The DUP vote doesn’t indicate that Protestant voters have hardened in their attitudes towards Catholics, since the DUP position does not differ radically from that of the UUP. The DUP has not ruled out going into government with Sinn Fein; it has only said that it will not do so before IRA disarmament. Many Unionists thought they were voting for this ‘extreme’ position when they voted ‘Yes’ in the referendum on the 1998 peace agreement.
The DUP vote is an expression of discontent, alienation and a feeling of marginalisation among Unionists in Northern Ireland. People voted for the DUP not because their policies differ radically from the UUP’s, but because the DUP have articulated a sense of discontent and dissatisfaction. The DUP’s electoral gains, however, disguise the problems that the party is facing.
Which is basically political stasis.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty