Yesterday the DUP was taught a life lesson. For decades it thought it was enough to appeal only to Protestant voters. In fact, largely because of DUP bigotry, “unionism” became a euphemism for “protestantism”. Yesterday’s Assembly election results showed that if that is how unionism is defined, the electoral result will ultimately be disastrous. It’s clearly a disaster if Sinn Fein – one of the most cynically manipulative of tribal parties – has any electoral success.
Like Ruth Dudley Edwards I’m also “deeply depressed by the tendency of Catholics to vote for murderers and Protestants to vote for bigots.” But the only way out of this situation is to change the nature of politics. And, despite yesterday’s depressing outcome, there were some encouraging signs.
First was the Alliance Party performance. This is a party I don’t fully understand. I’m perplexed as to what it stands for. I have no idea what political ideology Naomi Long and her friends subscribe to. But even if their support is mere protest vote, it’s an encouraging protest. It shows that there is a growing cohort of the electorate that wants something else beyond swamp politics.
The second good sign was the level of cross-community transfer between the UUP and SDLP. Here was a strong indication that, for many voters, the argument for or against the “union” was not the main motivation to vote – or disincentive to transfer. In short, many voters, regardless of their religion, or lack of it, might have something in common.
I must admit that I’m grasping at straws finding these encouraging signs from yesterday’s depressing result. But I am of the view that most people here, regardless of the result, simply want to see a better outcome for Northern Ireland. Most would not choose the political parties that now represent us. In just about every other Western democracy we have seen the emergence of a polity that sits outside religious bigotry. But not here and certainly not now.
Unionism, however, needs to get real. Banging the sectarian drum and addressing only the Protestant working class ‘market’ has resulted in a consistent decline in Unionist representation. In every other part of the developed world political parties are aligned left or right and ignore religion. Whatever they call themselves today…Unionist, Nationalist or Alliance…we need that here too.