A weekend of political uncertainty

Strangely for a political anorak no sooner had the functions of the election finished on Friday, than I repaired to the Mournes for a long weekend with the family. It was a long standing committment but a zero connection to the Internet means I’ve been relieved of the obligation to speculate on the outcome of either the negotiations in Westminister, or the fate of political unionism in Northern Ireland.

In the case of the former I note that young Mr Cameron is developing Brown-like bags under his eyes, and he has engaged the talent of Mr Portillo to engage the Lib Dems in serious negotiations. The man appears to be serious about a deal, looks prepared to take on his own party over any deal he might strike on electoral reform. Mr Clegg will need something special if his party is not to be reduced to the kind of mudguard status which has so often befallen Fianna Fails partners in Irish government.

No deal? Then Labour (the SDLP and the DUP, Plaid and the SNP) come back into play. That may afford the DUP an opportunity to play the only hand left them in Westminster for now.

This coda to the electoral stalemate of last Thursday may go on for days or even weeks. But it cannot distract political unionism from the fact that in process of comprehensively defeating the TUV, the DUP’s own beggar-thy-neighbour tactics are no longer working. They must find a way to give their electorate a spring in their step other than denying ‘others’ a seat.

Despite what was at the heel of the hunt a very narrow defeat, I suspect Reg Empey’s instincts that unionism needs to be about more than the union, it needs to be about peoples own needs being met through representative democracy. That his brave try crashed and burned should not obscure the fact that in East Belfast unionist voters preferred a non unionist MP, and in FST, too few thought it worth their while to vote out an abstentionist MP for a big U unionist.

It is certainly not the end of unionism, but it may be the beginning of the end of laager unionism. Its political leaders can either acknowledge that shift and use its dynamic to bring about some form of renewal. Or not. But unionism’s survival depends on being about something more than just the fact of the Union.

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