So the elections results are in: a sea change has occurred. The bark of unionism’s boat is near overflowed. All may not yet be lost but all is about to be. Wail, lament, tear clothes, put on sack cloth or more realistically start surfing rightmove to find a nice house in the North of England or Midlands or maybe Wales (house prices preclude the south and Scotland will soon be gone).
Well maybe and only a naïve unionist would dismiss this result. Equally:
In 1992 the Conservatives under John Major triumphed for a fourth successive electoral victory. Wise political commentators intoned that Labour could never win another election. Then came 1997 and 2001. Many of the same wise commentators intoned that the Conservatives could never again win an election.
Equally there have been changes which have seemed pretty complete: the eclipse of the UUP by the DUP, the eclipse of the Liberals by Labour within a few elections of their 1906 triumph. After 1906 they never had another majority.
The problems about sea changes in politics is exactly that – they are like the sea and the sea has no memory. Often political commentators seem to have none either.
After the last Westminster election many NI political commentators (including some on this site) said that the revival of the UUP especially the South Antrim seat showed that unionism was becoming more liberal. I pointed out it had a lot more to do with local short term factors such as Willie McCrea never having gelled with the constituency and his getting older etc. Then came the last Stormont election and Arlene’s triumph. Suddenly the demographic time bomb seemed diffused. Suddenly it was “discovered” that some Catholics were suspicious of social liberalism and that the voters were much more volatile than people thought. Suddenly Arlene was part of the new wave of elections like Brexit etc.
Now the pendulum has swung. In reality the previous Stormont election flattered Unionism and damned Nationalism / Republicanism and Alliance. This one has done the reverse. That is the thing about pendulums – simple harmonic motion -oscillation about a mid point.
All that said this election must be taken absolutely seriously by the DUP above all others. Although the UUP lost most that was in large part because of the reduction in the number of seats to 5 per constituency and some bad luck. Personally I suspect Nesbitt has been very premature in falling on his sword.
Foster on the other hand has serious thinking to do. In the last election the DUP very wisely ran it as Arlene’s team. She was the friendly young solicitor who just happened to be First Minister and extremely good at it. Her fall from near impregnability is far from complete but shows marked feet of clay.
The blocking of homosexual marriage and abortion whatever the respective rights and wrongs of those issues is being held up as relevant. However, Arlene and the DUP held exactly those positions less than a year ago and indeed those views were accounted as gaining them some ground from conservative Catholics.
The real change has been not demographic nor policies but RHI. The utter debacle of this scheme whereby people were paid to waste energy is breath taking. The fact that controls were not put in place is beyond belief.
When the scandal broke Sinn Fein initially played it badly, later they played it very well. The DUP on the other hand played it badly initially and then made a bad situation worse.
The drip, drip of revelations that assorted people and organisations close to the DUP were making substantial sums of money from the scheme was bad enough. When it transpired that some had built empty sheds etc. it got worse. The nadir was when Jim Allister claimed in Stormont that Stephen Brimstone (he of previous Red Sky fame) had removed a new pellet burner from his house to install a commercial one on which he could claim the subsidy. This crystalised the scandal perfectly and has not been denied.
Arlene’s response was inept. Where Peter Robinson had shown humility (albeit in personally worse circumstances) Arlene seemed to think her triumph of last year insulated her from the disaster. Then she relied on straightforward old fashioned unionism which whilst it may well have helped ensure that these elections were not a total disaster still produced a relative one.
Had she been cleverer in her actions she might have been able to avoid an early election and by the time of the next scheduled one all would have been forgotten. As it is despite her narrow victory she should consider her position. Then having considered it she should probably stay in power. Then she needs to ensure that that pendulum swings back. As a start she needs to ensure that any whiff of scandal is punished remorselessly. That may mean the end of a number of SPAD careers. Arlene needs to lay down her friends for her (and unionism’s) political life.