No change in Dreary Steeples

Well the dust has begun to settle (rather quickly) after the by election and I thought it worth putting together a few thoughts. The reality is of course that council by elections are pretty irrelevant. I do, however, take seriously Horseman’s criticism of me for describing the Fermanagh election as a cure for insomnia. He said (very correctly) that one should never have contempt for any exercising of democracy: I stand corrected.The outcome of this election is to be honest pretty irrelevant simply because despite all the ink which will be spilt over it: the status quo has largely been maintained. Clearly Arlene Foster won for the DUP and their proportion of the vote went up marginally. The DUP can proclaim this as a victory and that they have defeated the UUP in one of their very few semi strongholds west of the Bann. I said when Foster’s candidacy was announced that this was clever politics from the DUP and I still feel it was: it ensured a convincing win. I suspect Arlene Foster’s name probably is worth the 500 votes which separated the DUP and UUP. However, the fact that they had to draft in Foster shows that the DUP were far from supremely confident of victory. Had they achieved this win with Thomas Hogg that would have been a more significant result and a significant defeat for the UUP.
Jim Gibney recently suggested (in my view inaccurately) that the DUP’s stance on policing and justice is solely motivated by fear of other unionists. Even if that were true, this election is not going to make the DUP feel that they have a free run to do as they will on matters such as P&J.

The UUP have avoided humiliation and will be able to justify to themselves at least the forcing of this election. They will also be able to say that they scared the DUP into running Foster and have shown that they are still a party of significance in at least one seat beyond the Pale. However, they did not really make inroads into the DUP lead within unionism and as such are still very much second fiddle to the DUP. There may be no shame in Basil Johnston losing by only 500 votes to Arlene Foster but it is still a defeat and in terms of electoral support they are an enormously long way from the position they were in a decade ago in Fermanagh. This election will not make Reg Empey or his acolytes change tack and nor will it result in his downfall. However, the systemic problems within the UUP remain as obvious to everyone (apart from some UUP members) as they have done for some time. I remain relatively dubious that they will end up with a formal merger with the Tories and remain extremely dubious even if they do link up with them that such a deal will solve the UUP’s problems.

The TUV of course did not contest this election but asked their potential supporters to go out and vote for either of the other unionist parties. In view of the relatively comfortable unionist victory one might suggest that this was a flawed decision. However, crystal balls are I believe few in number in Jim Allister’s office and as such a difficult 50:50 decision before the election is not really made wrong afterwards by this outcome. Clearly had the TUV gained a large first preference vote that would have been relevant. Equally had splits resulted in giving the seat to SF, the TUV would have been blamed by the other unionist parties; or if the TUV had polled badly they would have been significantly damaged. No doubt the DUP will continue to try to argue that Dromore was the TUV’s high water mark and that it will be downhill from there. However, that is purely speculation and I might just as easily proclaim that all the unionists who did not turn out were actually TUV supporters so sickened by the DUP and UUP that they would not vote for either despite Jim Allister and Sammy Morrison’s pleas and that lots of the unionists who did vote would have preferred to vote TUV. Neither is likely to be accurate and we will have to wait until the TUV next contest an election to gauge what their actual support level is.

The biggest story of this election is of course the collapse in the SDLP vote. However, even here to read too much into it is probably very flawed. The SDLP ran an extremely low-key campaign: only they can answer as to why. I almost wonder if they knew that they could not beat SF in Fermanagh and as such tried to keep their vote down so that they would then not give second preferences to SF and help an SF victory. That would be extremely Machiavellian and of course if (a big if) they did that consciously they have suffered somewhat from it. However, they do seem extremely angry with SF at the moment and the outcome of this election has hurt SF (albeit only a little).

Probably more likely they knew they would not win, had relatively few election workers and thought that a low-key campaign would result in defeat being more easily explicable and people not knowing how their overall support was doing.

SF of course have remained static despite a pretty intense campaign. I know Ms. Coyle tried to proclaim an advance in percentage terms but fractions of a percent do not really count if you regard yourself as a major political party. Whilst some others might suggest that this was a set back for SF, I would not agree. They have retained the status quo and that is despite a previously relatively unknown candidate who might even have been disadvantaged by being originally English? They cannot, however, proclaim that they are either making major advances or that they are capitalising electorally on nationalist anger regarding supposed DUP intransigence. I would have thought, however, that Coyle did enough to be worth running again.

One might suggest that Gerry McHugh and anti agreement republicans are major losers from this election. Again, however, I would argue that such an interpretation would be fallacious. Karen McHugh did come across as a very inexperienced potential councillor when interviewed and her campaign seemed to be directed almost entirely at young people and to studiously avoid mentioning her own hard line background. Her campaign seemed more suited to standing for QUB Students’ Union than for Fermanagh District Council. Also as I have suggested previously a rejectionist republican might have fared much better in Erne East or Erne West than in the area around Enniskillen town. I honestly do not know to what extent Ms. McHugh was running on a rejectionist republican ticket: however, if rejectionist republicans wish to run again they would be better advised to be more overt with their views (it might at least allow politicos to gauge their level of support.

Turning finally to Alliance. I will admit to being a little surprised by Dr. Kamble’s relative success. One must remember that it was less than 4% of the vote but it was a start for a party which recently has not stood in the area. I confess to being a bit irritated by one comment he made: namely that people would listen to him if he were elected because he is a doctor. In a democracy a politician derives political importance from the people who elected them and whom they serve and not titles before nor letters after their name. Having got my mini rant over, Dr. Kamble ran a pretty effective campaign and might well have done enough to be given another go at the next election. He might well be able to improve his vote on subsequent outings but Alliance is an enormously long way from winning a council seat in Fermanagh.

So overall I would suggest that this election has told us nothing new and is most unlikely to change politics in either Fermanagh or Northern Ireland. Still it gave us all something to argue about. As the dust settles on this very minor tumult the Dreary Steeples are pretty unchanged.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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