TUV turnout to scupper Stormont?

The strong (anticipated) TUV vote in the European election will lead to the collapse of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont. Discuss (my early thoughts below the fold.)It is, of course, still early days in the count proceedings, but with tally figures from a variety of parties suggesting a definite trend indicating a 12% plus turnout for Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice, there is no doubt that the political consequences will be fairly dramatic at Stormont.

The DUP campaign was mounted on a clear pitch to bang the drum to rally unionists with the war cry of defeating republicans/ nationalists. The following quotes are taken from its election literature posted through every door in the Six Counties:
“To take republicans on….for control over decisions of nationalist/ republican ministers….to maintain a unionist agenda….to prevent Sinn Fein receiving the morale boost they desperately need.”

The negative tone was and remains clear; but having opted to fight on that battlefront, the party left itself exposed to Allister’s charge that this was a Janus-headed strategy which could be easily picked apart in the heartlands, where the Agreement(s) were never really sold in the first instance.

If, as now seems all but certain, Sinn Fein have topped the poll and the DUP have been humiliated by the defection of a sizeable chunk of its core vote to the unreconstructed Anti-Agreements (that’s of Good Friday and St Andrews) Party, then we would appear to be heading into a dangerous period of uncertainty in the north of Ireland.

Having bought power-sharing through St Andrews and subsequently sought to pitch the experience as one in which unionism was triumphing at nationalism’s expense (in spite of sound warnings as to the viability of such a strategy from Frank Millar and others), the DUP would appear to have been caught out in an unusual pincer movement: the full effect of the TUV pain is only being revealed because of the UUP’s ability, this time around, to hold its share of the vote.

Whilst the UCUNF project remains in its infancy, and with considerable problems of its own, it has at least seemingly served to stem the tide of disillusioned Ulster Unionist voters transferring their vote to the hitherto buoyant DUP, and may even result in a modest increase in percentage share of the overall turnout on the 2007 low for the party.

The real problem for the DUP is to be found in the party leadership’s collective failure to sell power-sharing with the grassroots, with all that entails for acknowledging as equals in government and society their nationalist neighbours- a problem, ironically, which they share with David Trimble and which provided the opportunity for the DUP to assume the mantle of leadership within the unionist community so decisively in 2005.

Having used the Big Man’s not inconsiderable political presence within Unionism to provide the cover for the historic compromise and leap into the unknown, the DUP is now faced with a backlash from its once most ardent supporters (and, in many cases, activists.)

There is now little room for maneouvre for the DUP. Having endured the early blows and humiliations as part of an unpopular republican leadership-led strategy to provide room for Ian Paisley to ‘sell’ St Andrews and bed in the DUP within the power-sharing administration, the leadership of Sinn Fein signalled an end to that particular strategy in the summer of 2008 through the Executive stand-off and the delivery of a clear message to the DUP that Sinn Fein could and would exercise its veto powers to frustrate the ambitions of DUP Ministers if a more consensual approach was not forthcoming from the very top.

The DUP are believed to have signed up to the devolution of policing and justice in a deal likely to have the British government as guarantor and under a clear understanding that Sinn Fein will walk if the deal is not adhered to.

Yet such a development (i.e. actual devolution of such powers), in the context of a DUP strategy which has paid little attention to the need to condition support within unionism for acknowledging and addressing the reciprocal needs and interests of their nationalist equals within government and society, may prove grist to the mill for what will be a rejuvenated Traditional Unionist Voice.
In that context, Sinn Fein would appear to have emerged from the election with a much strengthened hand, able perhaps to concede on slippage to any secret deal over policing/ justice devolution in return for other significant advances within and outside of the remit of the Executive.

If a week is a long time in politics, then nine months is an eternity.

Casting the mind back three seasons, it was very much the case that republicans had reason to be apprehensive. A poor outing in the Assembly and Executive to date was matched with speculation that the SDLP had snared the former Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, as a prospective candidate in the European election. Such a prospect would doubtlessly have galvanised an SDLP vote which had long before entered a slumber, disillusioned by what was on offer from the Durkan political leadership yet unimpressed by the alternative offerings of a Sinn Fein yet to get to grasp with the legislative and executive skills expected of a party in government and still suffering from the backlash (in this electoral grouping) of the toxic cloud produced by the Northern Bank robbery and murder of Robert McCartney.

That Sinn Fein ultimately did not have to face a much more rigorous test at the polls is partially an indictment of an SDLP leadership which now must surely be entering its final phase. But it also must be acknowledged that the type of pincer movement which has, apparently, so severely damaged the DUP in this election was never going to be an issue for Sinn Fein due to the fact that, whilst its party leadership may face questions over an inability to date to take steps to prepare the party for the demands of governance, it has excelled at preparing its own electoral and political base for the compromises necessary in the new post-Agreement era.

For more than a decade now, the republican narrative preached to the grassroots at internal functions, public rallies and media interviews has consistently sought to challenge and guide republicans to a position which acknowledges the need to address the concerns and rights of unionists. Of course, there have been dissenting voices, and some have left the mainstream republican group, but they remain a very small element of republicanism and a much, much smaller section of the broader nationalist community, with nothing like the electoral pull the Traditional Unionist Voice clearly retain within unionism.

It is ironic that, whilst Sinn Fein could learn a lot from the DUP regarding how to approach the business of preparing for governance, the DUP clearly have a lot more to learn from Sinn Fein regarding how to prepare an electoral and broader communal base for the pains and challenges of a new era of compromise.