So the results are all in. The result: nothing has changed and a bit has changed. The fall in the nationalist / republican vote and levels of seats has been analysed and will bear further analysis.
The changes or lack of them on the unionist side are, however, just as interesting.
Arlene Foster and the DUP’s triumph is marked. It is probably fair to say that the discontent with Peter Robinson last year was over hyped and to an extent if not a media creation, an issue over hyped by the media. That said Robinson was beginning to look tired and his heart attack may have reminded him of the way Paisley, although he had come back from serious illness hung on too long.
People have suggested that Foster has changed the DUP but in reality she and the other UUP defectors had done so already when they joined all those years ago: strengthening the party, broadening its appeal but also moving it to “the left”. Not that they did so alone: remember that Robinson after “Irisgate” came back and moved his and the party’s position. Foster and the other exUUP members simply meant that he was leading the party from the moderate wing rather than out on a personal limb.
Foster has, however, brought a new fresh face and feel to the party reaching out in a way Robinson could not: I have analysed her very impressive contribution previously and will not rehash old ground here.
The DUP played a very canny campaign both presenting Foster’s personal brilliance and also bringing back out the usual bogeyman of Martin McGuinness as first minister. Most expected, however, that the DUP would lose votes and seats to Mike Nesbitt’s resurgent UUP. Nowhere was this said to be more relevant than in South Antrim. After the Westminster election a number of commentators (including some on this site) tried to explain that unionists were moving away from the DUP’s position especially on social attitudes. I demurred suggesting that this was mainly about William McCrea never having truly gelled with South Antrim, him getting past his sell by date and the baggage he had accumulated from a pretty divisive political career.
As it happened in South Antrim there was indeed a modest increase in the UUP vote – almost entirely at the expense of Alliance- where they had proportionally one of their worst results in terms of change in vote (and surely a message that Ford is getting to the end of the best before date on the packaging). Furthermore in Belfast although there is almost no UUP presence left the DUP did not lose much except in East Belfast where their fall in percentage is more likely to be due to Robinson himself standing down (Alliance’s gain being less than half the DUP’s fall and they ran their biggest name and leader in waiting: Naomi Long).
In reality the tiny losses for the DUP and UUP were made up for by the gains in percentage for the TUV and UKIP both of which are perceived to be harder line unionist parties. Jim Allister will no doubt be disappointed by his failure to gain a fellow MLA but Robinson’s jibe of the last election that Allister was elected sub quota now looks pretty weak with Allister topping North Antrim’s poll. That victory will be bittersweet for Allister but the modest rise in TUV (and UKIP) support across the province will not be ignored by DUP strategists who will no doubt feel that further moves to the left would become dangerous.
Hence, the idea that the DUP’s social conservatism on the likes of homosexual marriage and abortion would cost them was proven to be wrong. That is not to say that the DUP has not changed in emphasis on these issues. The views of its members may have shifted little but it seems clear that most of the younger crop of MLAs do not want to make a song and dance about the issues: one cannot see any of the current leadership repeating Ian Paisley junior’s or Iris Robinson’s comments of a few years ago (that said Paisley junior might well not repeat them now either).
Indeed serious DUP strategists seem to have found a few DUP voting Catholic unionist unicorns just as I predicted many years ago. These unicorns have not, however, come from the liberal UCUNF typed wing but rather those socially conservative Catholics for whom issues like abortion are overridingly important. Voters with such views will remember DUP members standing firmly behind Bernie Smyth after her wrongful (and overturned) conviction for assault.
The DUP are very likely still to deploy a petition of concern should any attempt be made to extend the 1967 abortion act to Northern Ireland – any failure to do so would cost them votes. There could be a compromise but that would require compromise on all sides. On the issue of homosexual marriage again the DUP seem to have lost nothing from their current opposition. That said compromise is probably more possible there. Again I would suggest, however, that that will require compromise from the supporters of homosexual marriage. Supporting a conscience clause might be an option (as I suggested previously) though after next week the need for such a clause might be reduced and as such homosexual marriage’s supporters could have lost a bargaining chip.
The reality is that although many inside the Greater Belfast beltway, the metrotextuals and “progressives” may see these issues as vital it seems most of the unionist electorate are pretty unfazed by them or else have “the wrong” view. The DUP would also probably rather not fight on that ground so after this election the ball is actually pretty firmly in the “progressives” court. Compromises may be possible but it takes two to tango (and even at their best / worst the DUP have never tried to ban dancing).
Getting on with proper politics is undoubtedly what Foster and her colleagues will want to do. That of course, however, brings one back to the dysfunctional nature of the executive. It is possible that the DUP might take education though I suspect they would be foolish. Again, however, it is the DUP’s opponents and partners in Sinn Fein who probably need to think about the way forward. The tired rhetoric of the last 20 years and more has achieved little recently. The Trojan Horse of equality has found itself quietly moved some way from the city walls – by the electorate.
Clearly Foster has massive challenges ahead. Northern Ireland remains far too dependent on public spending; its health service languishes as the worst performing in the UK; its school system, if thankfully not most of its schools, remain, in complete chaos. The DUP have thus far not managed to remedy these issues and eventually the electorate may tire of not the dog whistle but the shipyard horn of the DUP standing up for unionism. Furthermore Foster though shiny young and charismatic will eventually wax stale (Enoch Powell’s dictum has yet to be proven wrong in a democracy). However, at the moment Foster has moved her party very slightly and pitch perfectly: it is for others of all positions to try to sort out their own houses.