Has DUP’s insistence on consolidation under its brand has cost Unionism 7% since 2003?

Last night DUP hacks were busy tracking what they were calling “the Mike Effect”. They were and are insistent on blaming the UUP for the decline of Unionism that stretches back to the point they took over from the UUP as leaders of Unionism.

Viewed in the near term frame of this election and a fine detailed view seat by seat it certainly cost the DUP its 30+ seat dominance. But at some point the DUP will have to look past its erstwhile beaten rival and look at its own contribution.

If the views on Slugger since last December, the huge crowd packed into our Slugger Punt event on the eve of the election and the increased turnout is anything to go by, this election was taken more seriously than most since Slugger began fourteen years ago.

The last momentous shift came thirteen years ago when the DUP drew level with the UUP in that notoriously cold election of 2003. That year both the UUP and DUP were both ahead of Sinn Fein in seats.

It was also the last one to be run under the freer pre St Andrews Agreement arrangements in which the electorate for First and deputy First Minister were voted upon by all designated MLAs, not just a private affair between the two largest parties.

Three defections later (Arlene Foster, Jeffrey Donaldson and Norah Beare) and instead of being three ahead of the UUP, the DUP were suddenly nine seats the better of their old rivals. Their old rivals never recovered.

Back then the DUP polled 25.7% of the overall vote, and the UUP 21.3%, with Sinn Fein intersecting the two with 23.5% and the SDLP on a relatively feeble 16.7%. Today the DUP’s consolidation of unionism leaves it one 28.1% and Sinn Fein 27.9%.

In setting up a system (post St Andrews) which helped it break its unionist rivals the DUP has pushed it’s own total its seems last year’s 29% is the DUP’s cap. Combined with Nesbitt’s 12.9% the combined total for Unionism is 41% compared with 48.4%

Now here’s the real shocker.

As I pointed out in my last Slugger the UUP came into this election in a hideous situation which meant it had seats it would already lose through no fault of its own because of the six to five crunch in the constituencies.

Just standing still would mean almost certainly mean losing four seats. And it lost two more because of the rising nationalist tide for which it had no actual culpability. That damage was almost entirely caused by the now dominant DUP.

Last night, even as their leader resigned, it turns out the party actually put on a modest rise in its vote. The vote transfer promise worked in some places to the advantage of the SDLP (in Lagan Valley), in others the UUP (South Antrim).

This lack of heterogenity in Unionism has left it with no internal alternative to the voice of the DUP, so that when the storm came the damage unionism sustained was greater than it probably should have been.

Nationalism on its very best day for years has also slipped (albeit marginally) over the same period from 40.5% to 39.8%. The real story, I would suggest, has been the growth of the middle ground (Alliance had its biggest percentage since 1979).

After three elections of effectively holding the unionist population to ransom with a ‘vote for us or you get the Shinner First Minster’, the electorate has called their bluff. Frankly, Clonoe or not, they don’t care to pay that price any more.

It may not be the end of that malign arrangement or even the beginning of the end, but it has lost most of its power on one side of the community. And it may, in time, lose its power on the other.

Even on its best day for years, whilst nationalism may not have fallen back by much, it has not prospered a jot since that cold November night in 2003. If either wants to move onwards, then next elections will have to be fought on very different grounds.

Each needs a retail offering of what it can do for Northern Ireland. That means no rule from Dublin or from London but from Stormont. And no more hiding behind the weaknesses of your partner.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty