DUP hubris has cost Unionism dear

The DUP have taken a royal kicking at the polls. They billed this election as them against Sinn Fein and by extension Unionism against Nationalism. Whilst that may be an argument worth making, they framed it in the dubiously useful context of poll topping. For them winning the election was about coming top of the pile. As it happens they came perilously close to not even topping the unionist poll. As a result, on their own terms, the DUP have emphatically lost this election, even before you consider that they failed to make a quota.The election was lost entirely due to hubris and arrogance. The DUP’s comparatively sudden rise to the top of unionism has bread an arrogance amongst their attitude and actions that has paralysed their ability for forethought that has been so admirable up to now. They were so sure that they could crush Jim Allister that they built an entire campaign around it, so arrogant that they played a zero sum election that risked the humiliation they currently enjoy. But the arrogance about elections has been prevalent for quite some time.

The DUP’s negotiations at St Andrews produced the idiocy of the largest single party nominating the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Whilst the First Minister and deputy First Minister are equal and identical offices in all but name, the DUP have deliberately and constantly fostered a perception in the unionist electorate that they are not, and that the First Minister alone speaks for Northern Ireland. But reality doesn’t follow the plot devices of a Colin Bateman novel. Now it is clear that there is a defined split in the Unionist vote that will make it almost impossible for a unionist party to emerge as the largest single party. That this gifts Sinn Fein the First Minister’s seat is entirely the responsibility and fault of the DUP, they created that system to try to blackmail the unionist electorate, but they have clearly failed. As a result, unionism may be forced to accept that Sinn Fein will have to have their turn in the top job, just as the DUP seemed to promise them the job of Assembly Speaker after the next election.

But how Peter Robinson reacts to this election is key to whether there is an election at all in 2011. Does he hate the UUP enough, and love his current lead position enough, to collapse devolution to prevent losing the election? I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, but for me, the important decision he has to make is about the likes of Willie McCrea and Gregory Campbell. Both are going to lose their positions of responsibility at Stormont, probably this week, what pressure will they exert on Robinson in reaction to such a crushing electoral disappointment? Jim Wells’ Assembly seat is almost certainly gone at the next election, and Lord Morrow is far from safe too, in what direction will they be pushing their leader? All indications today have been that the DUP leadership will be resisting the urge to lunge to the right, but how many of their own people can they carry on that path with Jim Allister waving P45s in their faces?

The final results of the European election are in truth entirely logical. The TUV has taken the DUP pre 1997 core vote, and the traditional UUP vote is now shared between the UCU and DUP. Perhaps the much trailed realignment of Unionism will occur now, and maybe it will involve those who wish to see devolution continue, and who recognise that mandatory power sharing is necessary in the medium term will unite to save and develop the devolutionary settlement. If Peter Robinson tries to reject this idea, and seeks to fight on two fronts, surely he will fail. My concern is not that the DUP will be destroyed, but that the political stability that we currently enjoy will go with it. Jeffrey Donaldson was entirely correct yesterday to say that a majority of unionists voted for parties not opposed to powersharing. The logical conclusion to this is that Jeffrey Donaldson wishes to abide by that mandate given by the Unionist people. The DUP are going to have to have a long hard think about how to do that.

I used to write and get paid, now I read and don’t.

Former UUP staffer, currently living in London. @mjshilliday