It seems that the party everyone seems keenest to write off has topped the poll in The Skerries (roughly Portstewart and Portrush to you and me), and after significant transfers from both nationalist candidates and the UU’s, went on to win the seat by 266 votes.Hardly world shaking news, but considering Alliance have not topped the polls in a by-election in Holywood in the mid nineties, and they’ve not been seen much outside the greater Belfast since Anne Gormley’s last held a seat in Omagh in 1997, the party will no doubt take some heart that a viable cross community vote still exists.
One of candidate Barney Fitzpatrick’s key messages during the campaign highlighted the stasis brought about by the two main parties, aided, no doubt, by the controversial nature of the previous DUP councillor’s departure:
“Local people were disgusted by former DUP Councillor Dessie Stewart’s electoral fraud. The public are also annoyed that the Ulster Unionists forced a by-election for the middle of December, which will cost local taxpayers up to £15,000. This is a disgraceful waste of public money.
“Alliance is getting great feedback on the doorsteps in the Skerries area and we can see that people are sick of the sad political games of the sectarian parties.
“Over one billion pounds is currently wasted yearly on keeping Northern Ireland divided. Alliance will end segregation and will invest the cash saved into local hospitals, schools and policing.
Slugger regular and Alliance councillor Ian Parsley told Slugger, “For years there has been a ring of yellow around Belfast, now there is a little chink of light up in Coleraine”.
With Alisdair McDonnell implausibly taking a formerly solid unionist seat in South Belfast on a substantial cross community vote, it seems there is now some margin in play for parties with cross community appeal. Though it is often difficult to see how party spokesmen have significantly moderated their largely sectional appeal to take account of what can represent a crucial difference between winning and losing in some places.
This is certainly a fillip for the party ahead of the much tougher challenge of an Assembly election (the date for which must remain uncertain until there is some kind of definitive deal on policing). Slugger understands the party will unveil what they believe is a high calibre candidate in McDonnell’s constituency tomorrow.
However, whether parties like the Alliance, or indeed the emergent Greens and Conservatives, can capitalise on their position in these highly scattered cross community areas in the long term remains, as ever, an open question.
Adds (sorry for the messy table):
Stage 1 % -/+ Stage 2 Stage 3
Barr UUP 625 25.3 +10 635 -635 0
Fielding DUP 678 27.5 +8 686 +316 1001
Fitzpatrick All 694 28.1 +362 1056 +212 1268
Leonard SF 253 10.2 -253 0 0
Rae SDLP 219 8.88 -219 0 0
Non-Trans 92 +107 199
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