The PUP has not had a very happy post-Good Friday Agreement existence. Since 1998, they have suffered an electoral decline that would make David Trimble blush. Yes, Northern Ireland’s voice of Loyalism has been out of sorts and out of political influence since it lost its last remaining assembly seat in 2010 when Dawn Purvis left the party. In addition to this, the party has lost a staggering 88% of its vote over the last 15 years.
The party now has just two councillor’s province wide and enjoys support in very few parts of Northern Ireland. But in its heyday the PUP was a real force in Belfast enjoying the support of thousands of voters. So this makes me pose the question, where did it all go wrong and is there any way back in from the political wilderness for the party?
In 1998, the PUP won 13,019 votes (1.6%) across Northern Ireland, electing two assembly members (Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine). What was remarkable about this result was that the party was not just solely the David Ervine/East Belfast party but had a solid base in all four Belfast constituencies.
But in more hostile territory like South and West Belfast, the party polled a respectable 5.2% in each constituency. The PUP candidate for South Belfast, Ernie Purvis, polled 2,112 votes while his better known counterpart in West Belfast, Hugh Smyth won 2,180 votes. The party’s vote in these two constituencies represented more than 30% of the party’s total support province wide.
Ever since, however, the PUP’s decline has been sudden and crippling. Since 2003, the party has effectively been forced to retreat into East Belfast. During the 2003 assembly election, the PUP suffered a major setback as they lost Billy Hutchinson in North Belfast who in just four years lost a huge 61.9% of his vote, winning just 1,358 votes (4.3% of the vote). The party suffered dismal results in West and South Belfast as they won just 813 and 495 votes respectively in each constituency. Even in their heartland of East Belfast the party lost 2,395 votes.
When the party contested their first election in 2007 following the death of David Ervine, Dawn Purvis managed to score an upset by holding East Belfast with an increased majority. However, this result masked the major decline in the rest of the province as the party’s vote shrank to just 0.6%. The constituency of East Belfast had gone from being just 41.3% of the party’s total province wide support in 1998 to 80% in 2007. It is also important to note that the party did not run any candidates in either North or West Belfast at this election.
In 2010, when Purvis walked out of the PUP, the writing was effectively on the wall. Since 2003, the party had effectively become an East Belfast pressure group. The split that inevitably followed would ensure that no Loyalist voice would be present at the next assembly. What should be worrying for the PUP is that when you look at the 2011 assembly election you see that Dawn Purvis despite walking out on the party still managed to hold around 53% of the vote that she won at the previous election.
Where to now?
Can the recent flag protests salvage the party? I don’t honestly know but it will be an uphill battle for the party from here. The votes they need to take back are largely from the DUP and the rest have just stopped voting. The party are hoping to capitalise on disenchantment but at the 2016 election I can see most Unionist parties attempting to occupy this space which will make it hard for the party to get attention and therefore votes.
I often wonder how the modern Loyalist flag protestors would reconcile themselves with David Ervine’s pronoucments of stopping this nonsense about ‘not being Irish.’ Ervine made the obvious point that ‘how can you live on the island of Ireland’ and not have some form of Irishness. Alas, I think those days are gone, as Loyalism now looks to people like Jamie Bryson for intellectual teachings. Perhaps there in lies the problem for the movement as a whole.
On a historical note and I am inviting people to fact check me on this, I cannot find a party in Northern Ireland electoral history who once losing all their seats ever returned. If you can find one, please leave a comment below and I’ll fire it up.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs