“The Unionist Garden Centre has become the Zen Garden Centre…”

“That fear mongering hasn’t exactly stopped, but the fear has…” Great piece from Newton Emerson on Hearts and Minds last night regarding the weird paradox of how the unionist population almost seem to be enjoying the perplexity of the Unionist leadership… Something perhaps for the new Ulster Unionist leader to take on board…

Emerson argues that the union never was under a credible threat, but that winding people up about was good for the voting tally… Harsh, given that during the troubles fear in both populations was being driven not only by their own leaders, but the actions of organisations on ‘the other side’…

As the Ulster Unionist hands the leadership to the safe pair of hands of Fermanagh’s Tom Elliot, his immediate challenge in the east of Northern Ireland will be on one hand to stem the leaching of voters away to their erstwhile rivals and incumbents, the DUP… But also to stem the disenchantment amongst many liberal unionists with the pessimism of Unionism past, and stop what could be a significant movement away to the Alliance party.

And that’s not a question of some manufactured talking point. Just look at Anna Lo’s performance in South Belfast last time out:

DUP 23.7%UUP 17.3%Alliance 15.0%Other 3.0%SDLP 41.0%

That’s up from 7.2% in the 2005 Westminsters, and trending upwards by 2% from 2007. Now those proportions may be skewed somewhat by the fact Sinn Fein did not stand. But the UUP have been trending downwards in almost every Assembly election since they began.

Alliance are becoming more competitive in more constituencies than at almost any time since they began (the new MP for East Belfast has barely been seen at Westminster, but rarely leaves her continuous campaign trail in the constituency ahead of next year’s Assembly’s). Adds: See iluvni’s stats below

Yet so far it is not the nationalist parties they are taking voters from, but Unionists. And specifically the UUP.

Knowing him fairly well, I would suggest that Trevor Ringland’s threat to walk from the party if Tom Elliot does not turn it round and steer it into a more progressive direction was niether lightly arrived at, nor devoid of political realism.

Interesting times ahead…

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