“When the history of this election written the first word is going to be ‘transfers’…” said Mark Carruthers of Mike Nesbitt’s only real contribution to a tumultuous campaign. The real problem the UUs had was its lack of resonant messages on the government record.
However, once said, transferring cannot be unsaid. It’s the clear logic of anyone going into government to power share. And it wasn’t universally unpopular. The party increased its vote like almost everyone else. But by nothing like enough.
Their leader’s too eager determination to decapitate the government in the party’s new found glory as lead in the official opposition was the root cause. To borrow from Machiavelli, if you claim you will kill the Queen, you’d better be sure you actually do.
Or as one southern observer put it, it was as though they thought they were playing a game of chess against a wall, that in dictating the first move they also imagined they could control how the second, third and fourth would go.
In fact, the truth is that in politics once you make an aggressive opening move (like calling for Arlene to resign) you then hand over the second move to your opponent(s). Instead of making a more conservative play, Mike threw everything he had, consequent to that opening move, at one already fated game.
One major disruption later and his party has paid a huge price when they found that Sinn Fein had (after many years of playing the dormant crocodile suddenly rose up from the murky depths and not only showed its teeth but bit off nearly a third of his party.
Neither themselves or the SDLP were ready for this. Given its weak seat position beforehand the UUs always had more to lose from such an election. The weakening of the one now has serious implications for the other.
With Nesbitt stepping down now the party could do with having something of a very open internal conversation. Can it provide a home again for those unionists who were mortified (yet again) at the adolescent (and profoundly shallow) antics of Paul Givan over Liofa for instance?
The DUP’s presentation of themselves as Unionism’s only champions has created a scorched earth environment for middle ground Unionists, in the process demotivating the sort of civic-minded voters for whom the Ulster Unionists traditionally provided a home.
They’ve been harshly schooled in real politics. If you are small, then recognise you’re small and build slowly from the base. And don’t attack until you are certain you can win something from it. Small parties rarely bridge that gap in one.
Unionist turnout was depressed this time, in part because many of their voters were demotivated and frankly embarrassed by Arlene’s rabbit in the headlights performance, and the lack of an alternative place to go. The question is now: is it too late?