The election exposed the faint breath of a desire for change within the sectarian camps.

All true democrats should thrilled to have it confirmed that politics is not dominated by the polls. Real people apparently can think for themselves.

Locally LucidTalk’s amazingly hairy exercises with opinion panels fared better  in the prediction stakes than the  UK national pollsters, even though playing percentages  is a whole lot easier than making firm predictions. Small shifts in turnout and opinion made all the difference.

Looking at it from across the water, your campaign was generally beyond embarrassment. The broadcasters did you a favour by excluding the local parties  from the national leaders’ debates. The  injured professions  of  anti-sectarianism , from the DUP over Jim Wells’ repeated  homophobia and from a Sinn Fein student ( keep watching your back, lad) over Gerry Kelly’s appeal to sectarian loyalty, afforded as few moments of grim amusement.  These views are supposed to be kept in lodge (note the phrase) as much as unionist job fixing was in the old days . To an outsider the fuss about the supposed sectarianism of a unionist pact must be completely bewildering.  Which twin is not the reactionary?

Still. A few lessons can be drawn.

The viability of other parties beyond the DUP and Sinn Fein has been confirmed.

The Fermanagh South Tyrone result actually did defy predictions which tend to be based on a tacit belief in Sinn Fein near- invulnerability and – equally pervasive –  pan unionist inferior vote harvesting abilities.

I would like to see the analysis but it looks as if it was differentials in a higher  than average turnout that did it.  In other  cases, successfully in south Antrim and almost so in Upper Bann, the DUP was challenged  by the  UUs when it was safe for pan-unionism to risk it. This fires warning shots across the bows of the two dominant parties , even though it doesn’t mean the stranglehold of the DUP and Sinn Fein on the Executive is about to be broken. But it does suggest a lot quite a lot of people are scouting around for alternatives. The UUP  the SDLP and the Alliance party ( at least  with Naomi’s vote up)   each has a modestly firmer  platform to build on for next year’s Assembly campaign. What will they do  with it?

For a start the SDLP should find themselves another leader and think hard about it this time. Colm Eastwood or Mark H Durkan have some  21st century appeal to them. Either would set a good example to the old warriors of the 1960s and 70s to retire .

Alliance put all their eggs in Naomi’s basket and badly need to widen their range of appeal people and policy. Paula Bradshaw was already a singularly inept choice as candidate for south Belfast  as a former restless unionist, when she was faced by  the striking condemnation  of Catherine McCartney  for her gratuitous comment on the “ “loss of Gerard from the community sector.”

Sinn Fein were lucky not to have the barrenness of abstentionism exposed in a hung parliament.  If they were angling for an extra £1.5 billion in the SNP’s slipstream, this was always likely to be a fond hope.

DUP hopes of becoming a pivot in a hung parliament were exaggerated if they thought  this meant  they were the acceptable face of Sinn Fein ready for another rattle of the begging bowl, while at the same time posing as champions of the Stormont House Agreement.

SHA is the better deal already. Cameron will make it clear that their reward for compliance is the devolution of corporation tax, even though  it won’t build a single extra social home or inch of road for years. Nor will it protect them from welfare cuts.  Their attitude to CT is like a small child being presented with a copy of the Bible  – worthy, but she wanted sweeties.  The only home grown alternative to  implementing  the SHA seems to be raid the block grant and cut deeper elsewhere.

Theresa Villiers has already reminded them of the political realities which are much the same as before.  There are dreary steeples in Whitehall too.

Meanwhile, the Detail has done a fine job in laying out real issues.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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