Post-election thoughts from Jamie Bryson who was campaign manager for the independent Unionist candidate in South Belfast Ruth Patterson.
There is little doubt that this years Assembly election was a bitterly disappointing experience for Unionists seeking to challenge the dominance of the DUP.
There must be a pragmatic realisation that the DUP’s vulnerability on their flank, in terms of their cosy relationship with Sinn Fein, will rapidly decrease within the next 5-10 years.
Those within Sinn Fein with a background in the IRA will be gradually retiring. It is a much harder political argument to make to shout ‘terrorist’ at the likes of Patrice Hardy, Cat Seeley or Michelle O’Neill.
These natural changes in the make-up of Sinn Fein will remove the DUP’s ability to use the ‘vote for us to keep McGuinness out’ project fear illusion.
It is likely, however, that a moderate delivery in Government on bread and butter issues will be enough to copper-fasten the DUP’s place at the top for a number of assembly terms to come. Project fear will be replaced by moderate political pragmatism.
Unionist history, if written accurately, would not judge the DUP surrender of principled Unionism kindly, but history is written by the victors.
Therefore, as ‘opposition Unionists’, we can either continue firing at a ship that is now out of our range, or we can think more strategically and challenge the status quo by providing a new version of principled Unionism that appeals more widely to the PUL electorate.
And whether the UUP like it or not- and whether they skulk into the Executive as the play thing of the DUP or not- they are still, in reality, opposition Unionists.
There must also be a realisation by many parties and independents that social media is not, in any shape or form, reflective of the electorate or the real world.
There are two sides to this coin; firstly political success cannot be judged by social media likes or retweets- if it was the DUP and Sinn Fein would have been ripped out- and secondly trolls that devote their lives to believing they are pulling someone down- by relentlessly laying siege- should realise they are about as effective are firing a pea shooter at a brick wall.
Principled Unionism will no longer, in itself, provide the vehicle to challenge the status quo. This election was the last chance saloon for that strategy, and we must accept- whether we like it or not- that it fell victim to the contrived project fear campaign.
Principled Unionism must become New Unionism. This means the core principles remaining the same but the message being packaged differently and providing a more forward thinking vision that takes into account the rapidly changing social and political landscape.
There is, of course, never really anything such as defeat- only lessons. The next battle already started at 10pm on Thursday the 5th May.
Opposition Unionists can ignore the lessons and wallow in the illusion that they represent defeat, or we can take them onboard, adapt and overcome.
It’s only a few short years until the council, Westminster and assembly elections start again and we can have another crack. But that fight starts now.
Finally, the one story from the election that I thought provided a remarkable lesson was the success of Eamon McCann.
I fundamentally disagree with almost all of Eamon’s politics, but to try, try and try again and finally succeed after 46 years is an astonishing example of resilience and the ability to bounce back from perceived defeat.