#EP19 sends a strong cross community message to London that NI is not impressed with Brexit

So, the undoubted winner of the election was Naomi Long to an extent she probably could not have imagined herself. And Remain.Why? Well, it’s not that  she’s a formidable campaigner and debater. (She is.)

I’d identify two key elements to the sheer scale of her victory:

  • one, her irascible personality captured something of the angry mood of the Remain majority in Northern Ireland,
  • and two, her positioning meant she was a safe place for people register their disgust at the way Remain opinion has been sidelined within the national debate (in both Ireland and the UK).

What most of us didn’t expect (and it may also have been a surprise to Naomi) is quite how she would power herself so close to the winning line. It got her to the point where her partner’s transfers, in what Jim Allister dubbed the Remain tag team, Colum Eastwood, and whose vote rose marginally, flung her far over the line to fill the top seat.

Needless to say this was Alliance’s best ever performance. It was also “Others” best performance, taking a full 21.2% of the vote, leaving unionists on 42.9%  and nationalist parties languishing on 35.9%.

As one US state legislator noted on Twitter, the gap between nationalism and unionism has fallen, but the gap between nationalism and a majority has grown.

There was chatter over the weekend of Sinn Féin’s Chess move here to put Naomi over the line. But it is doubtful that 34k less voters chose to vote for the Sinn Fein candidate because of the loss of proxy votes or at the behest of the party.

As Martina Anderson failed to hit quota, SF voters who gave Naomi a preference over Colum never got to play in the transfer game. And that generally has been Sinn Féin’s problem. It may have detached itself from the problem of Brexit, but nor is attached to the solution.

The DUP had a decent day at the office with a small percentage rise. But they lost the bigger question at play here: which is that whatever their friends in London are planning Northern Ireland clearly wants to remain within the European Union.

Increasingly it is dawning on them that political unionism has no liberal arm to take care of the people the DUP will never get to vote for them. Though I’m reluctant to resile to the term unionist, they must face the fact that the Union’s bulwark is the uncommitted in the middle.

The poor UUP. Margaret Thatcher once said: “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides.” Danny Kennedy was as good a candidate as they had, but just being against No Deal was like shouting into a wind tunnel.

Positioning did for them as much as it benefited the Alliance party. Alliance is not a unionist party, but since it poses no direct threat to the union, most unionist defectors felt safe enough to go there. As I argued in 2014, Alliance are everyone’s lifeboat from poisonous tribalism.

No doubt Colum Eastwood is disappointed not to have put more than a percentage point increase on. Less than one percent may be modest, but it is the party’s first percentage increase since 1999. Paying attention to such details matter in the long run.

Another significant detail is that there are still only enough Nationalists/Catholics to gain one of the three seats at a European election, which means the only seat available to him was Martina’s. Rebooting a pro Agreement nationalism is where growth (and seats) lies.

Jim Allister suffered from the DUP centrality on the pro Brexit side of the debate, and the fact that liberal unionists were determined to defy his call to send a pro Brexit message to Westminster. Each time he spoke in public a few more will have jumped ship.

He may even be responsible for some Sinn Féin crossing over to the Alliance side of the house to reinforce that message.

Bottom line is that this was a good day at the office for the Remain lobby in Northern Ireland. While Sinn Féin held on a falling vote, Naomi’s second slot sends a sharp reminder that there is a strong cross community consensus that NI is not impressed with Brexit.