East Belfast: where the progressives met their Waterloo

It is the two hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. These days, however, the French seem to celebrate it as a victory rather than a defeat.

So finally we can celebrate after five horrible years as the bastion of awfulness finally fell: oh yes and it was VE day as well.

Excitement amongst unionists over the defeat of Naomi Long is tempered by the fact that she was hardly a terrorist cheerleader in chief. Rather much of the pleasure is actually the less wholesome one of schadenfreude. This is directed less at Ms. Long herself and more comes from the way in which all too many amongst the unthinking “liberals”, self defined “progressives” and co invested so much in Long’s initial victory and in hopes of her holding the seat. Long’s victory was seen by some as an example of the “new”, “progressive” etc. etc. Northern Ireland they sought. Many of these liberals seemed much more interested in defeating the ghastly unionists than they did defeating nationalists and republicans. Indeed many a liberal seemed to see Sinn Fein as positively wholesome as compared to the DUP.

Those anticipating Long holding the seat had some limited reasons for optimism but not for the reasons they hope (a sudden surge of “progressivism” in East Belfast).

To understand the election one needs to go back to look at the last Westminster election, its unique nature, and also look at Long herself.

Peter Robinson lost the seat at the height of his personal and political problems; the media had turned on him extremely aggressively and his response had been poor. That subsequently Robinson has been exonorated personally and has rebuilt himself is a stunning achievement but at the time that recovery was some way off.

In view of Robinson’s assorted problems there was a feeling that he could be beaten. That was where Long’s next stroke of luck came. The UUP were at that time consumed with the quixotic UCUNF which was an awesomely powerful force which was sweeping all before it – unfortunately only on the internet. The New Farce stood Trevor Ringland who was simply a poor candidate hampered by the New Farce itself and his overconfidence in both himself and the Farce.

In view of this: a severely damaged incumbent and a woeful chief alternative Long had a real chance. In addition she was a well known and popular local MLA.

The problem seems to have been that after that defeat the DUP sat down and thought through how to recapture the seat; Alliance did to a lesser extent and the “progressives” forgot all the special circumstances that produced Long’s victory.

The effects of the flag protests are difficult to judge. Alliance’s support for “Designated Days” probably hurt it in the working class parts of the constituency that supported Long fairly solidly in 2010. On the other hand the criminal attacks on Alliance and threats to Long personally were suggested to have garnered her some support in middle class areas. I am very suspicious of this simplification. It is likely that most working class unionists even the flag protesters did not support the criminality (they have suffered more than anyone from loyalist terrorists). Meanwhile middle class unionists may not admit to it to pollsters but are unlikely to have supported reducing the number of days the flag was flown.

Long was not a bad MP but was inevitably less visible than she had been as an MLA. In addition it was suggested she was a bit unhappy in Westminster: unsurprisingly since she had no colleagues (refusing to take the Liberal Democrat whip). The other major problem was that over the course of the 2010 parliament Alliance became more clearly identified as a non unionist party. Long had presented herself as a soft unionist but she had increasingly been shown to be on the extreme unionist wing of the party (I somehow like the idea of an extreme wing to Alliance) whilst the public centre of gravity of Alliance seemed towards neutrality or even hostility to the union. That Alliance has for years been officially neutral on the union is irrelevant: it has always prospered most in unionist areas and was always regarded by less politically involved voters as soft unionist.

In this election there was a significant attempt to bolster Long. Some on slugger will not like it but it should be pointed out that this website took part in a hustings event which excluded all challengers except Long and Gareth Robinson: downplaying the other candidates could assist only Long. Furthermore much of the twittersphere and internet land supported her failing to notice that the same sort of non existent groundswell of popular cyber support had failed both with the New Farce and NI21. Cyber majorities evaporate when faced with that little pencil on a string in the polling booth. Trevor Ringland rowed in behind her saying “I don’t think my votes would automatically transfer to the DUP” which is likely to be correct for only for a minority of his supporters.

Long herself ran a fairly reasonable campaign. Her aggressive support for homosexual marriage and attacks on Judith Cochrane for failing to support it was probably her only mistake. There is a fair sized liberal evangelical community in East Belfast and they probably backed Long in 2010 but her threats to Cochrane (a fully paid up happy clapper) was a mistake.

Not that such a mistake was likely to be critical. Most of Ringland’s supporters were UUP voters not the imaginary UCUNFers and the vast majority would always have transferred to the DUP. Furthermore the dark personal days of 2009-2010 for Peter Robinson were long gone and he was not even the candidate.

Some commentators are suggesting that without a pact Long would have won. That may be the case but is uncertain. After all the hype and obsessing from assorted “progressives” the reality is that East Belfast is a solidly unionist constituency and most of its population have always preferred to be represented by a unionist. In the special circumstances of 2010 it fell to a popular local Alliance candidate who presented herself as a soft unionist. That Long did as well as she did this time says a lot for her personal qualities but her demise was almost inevitable.

The self defined progressives who have been so annoyed by the unionist celebrations and schadenfreude should remember their response when Peter Robinson was defeated in 2010. In politics what goes around tends to come around.

As Long’s tenure as MP for East Belfast recedes into the past a similarly rose tinted view of her defeat may develop as the French view of Waterloo. Already we are having it described as a moral victory. Unionists having tasted two victories of the real sort this time round will probably prefer them.

As a final thought: The one thing that few have noted in this episode is that in one of unionism’s strongest heartlands its major party can be defeated by a mix of scandals. In republican areas Sinn Fein has seemed much more unassailable despite arguably much greater scandals. Whether that continues remains an interesting question.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.