As Unionism across Northern Ireland licks its collective wounds, what next?

As Unionism across Northern Ireland licks its collective wounds after a devastating Westminster election, I wanted to focus on two crucial battlegrounds where political Unionism acted in an unacceptable manner, namely North Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST).

Both battles were on paper, good old-fashioned knockdown and drag-out fights involving a single Unionist candidate against the might of the old foe – Sinn Fein. Unionism approached both campaigns in a very different manner but the outcome was the same with Sinn Fein emerging victorious in both constituencies.

Steve Aiken the former submarine commander and then pending UUP leader effectively scuppered his leadership before it began. Aiken declared in an interview without time for much internal party consultation that he was ruling out any pacts with the DUP. Ironically at this stage the DUP had the upper hand, Aiken was out of sync with Unionist thinking (DUP, UUP and other). The DUP’s response should simply have been to voice disappointment with Aiken’s decision but accept it, voice their support for Unionist cooperation and to back this up by declaring that they would not be fielding a candidate in FST but would instead row in behind the agreed UUP candidate. Unionism in North Belfast would have rallied around the DUP and any UUP candidate would have been swamped.

Unfortunately, however, the DUP and others made demonstrous errors that cost them the election before it began. The DUP panicked and attacked both Aiken and the UUP (their “allies”) and then the unthinkable happened: unknown forces made threats against UUP staff members that subsequently resulted in the UUP declaring that they would not be standing in North Belfast. Nigel Dodds condemned the threats but the harm was done, the DUP got what they wanted but the price would be mainstream revulsion and a loss of votes.

As the UUP exited the stage in North Belfast, DUP leader Arlene Foster declared her support for Tom Elliott as the agreed Unionist candidate in FST. Tom was effectively dragged out of political retirement to run a constituency campaign against the might of Sinn Fein.

Nationalists looking on were having none of this and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood acted decisively by pulling the SDLP out of North Belfast to give Sinn Fein a free run, which Sinn Fein reciprocated by pulling out of South Belfast to give the SDLP a free run. This was done under the umbrella of a “Remain Alliance” with both parties also pulling out of East Belfast (for Alliance) and North Down (for Lady Sylvia Herman). Most Unionists viewed this as a Nationalist pact to swoop in for North and South Belfast under the guise of their “Remain Alliance”. However, there is no doubting that Eastwood’s slick and effective leadership showed what Unionism was sadly lacking – a leader – and all of a sudden the Unionist pact looked inadequate and old fashioned.

Nigel Dodds still had an opportunity to win the seat and a high-profile election battle began. During the campaign Dodds looked tired, even exhausted. He had after all been the DUP leader in Westminster for almost three years whilst the DUP held the balance of power and being dropped into a gruelling election campaign was not ideal. Further to this, he was seen as the architect of the failed Brexit negotiations that resulted in the DUP being deemed to have overplayed their hand, this effectively created a border in the Irish sea should Boris Johnson’s “Withdrawal Agreement” go through.

Further complicating Nigel Dodd’s North Belfast candidature was the raft of scandals from RHI to Ian Paisley that embroiled the DUP, and as Dodds was the DUP leader in all but name, he was implicated by association. Due to both the “sea border” and DUP scandals, many within Unionism were reluctant to back Dodds, even if it meant a Sinn Fein MP being returned to North Belfast. The words of Colum Eastwood rang out loudly during the campaign, “Better John Finucane sitting in the house than Nigel Dodds sitting in the House of Commons … that’s better than someone who will go and misrepresent us”. These words were very damaging. Despite all of this the only potential Unionist candidate for North Belfast was Nigel Dodds, with absolutely no one else waiting in the wings.

By contrast, the Sinn Fein candidate was the young, energetic, rising star and ex-solicitor John Finucane. Relatively free from baggage and scandal (except his little Watergate moment), Finucane could appeal beyond Sinn Fein’s core vote but was someone able to keep Republicans onside due to his family history. In fact, Finucane barely put a foot wrong during the entire campaign. One significant outlier to this was his failure to condemn the terrorist attack on Nigel Dodds as he visited his seriously sick son in a children’s hospital. This terrorist attack resulted in a police officer being wounded and a stray bullet hit an empty incubator in the intensive care unit. Finucane’s refusal to condemn the attack, citing that he was against “selective condemnation of the past,” was a chilling moment during the campaign. It is also right to point out that Finucane himself was the victim of a terrorist attack which resulted in his father being murdered as he watched on as a child.

Aside from this moment, Finucane’s campaign was vibrant, positive and well resourced. Sinn Fein stuck to a clear message, they were “against Brexit” and they wanted to “remove arch Brexiteer Nigel Dodds”. To mask Finucane’s inexperience he was frequently sidelined in interviews and during conferences where the more experienced Michelle O’Neill or Mary Lou McDonald would do the briefing.  High profile endorsement after high profile endorsement rolled in via social media for Finucane, there was a buzz about his candidature and Sinn Fein was almost reinventing themselves as a pluralist party representing everyone against the evil DUP empire. The social media campaign was also phenomenal both on Sinn Fein’s main pages, via their activists, fellow party members and on Finucane’s own accounts.

The DUP campaign, in contrast, was almost terrifying. It pivoted on fear and dread. Banners were erected by paramilitaries targeting the Finucane family that were endorsed by one DUP councillor via social media who eventually went on to delete their account. Furthermore, a series of accusations were made about paramilitaries campaigning on behalf of the DUP team. At the same time, the DUP and more loudly Jamie Bryson complained about Shankill bomber Sean Kelly canvassing for Sinn Fein. The DUP were correct to flag this but it smacked of hypocrisy given the level of paramilitary support for DUP candidates and this caused concern amongst mainstream Unionists and Others (some of whom were tempted to vote for Dodds) and ultimately drove many to stay at home or vote Alliance, it also ensured the SDLP voters were firmly behind Finucane.

The actual official DUP canvass team was generally quite shorthanded in comparison with what Sinn Fein had out. There is no doubting that on many occasions when Nigel Dodd’s went to people’s doors, he was very well received due to much of his constituency work done over 18 years, however, the terrifying campaign that he was losing control of was undoing all previous good work. Additional problems arose when a DUP councillor in North Belfast became embroiled in a public controversy over the allocation of housing which caused him to lock down his social media profile and resulted in him being put under investigation. Prior to the election, Dodds was left stunned when Thomas Hogg a Newtownabbey DUP councillor whom Dodds had backed after being convicted of drink driving, was charged with sexual communication with a child. Hogg subsequently resigned from the DUP.

There was also largescale revulsion of convicted drug dealer Mark Officer canvassing for Dodds and referring to a Catholic who was the victim of sectarianism as a “rat” on social media. Worth noting as well those UUP voters wishing to poke Dodds in the eye for how their party had been railroaded out of the constituency were all very unlikely to vote Dodds. In fact, at no stage during the entire campaign did any senior member of the UUP publicly back Dodds in North Belfast.

It was little surprise in the end that Finucane won rather comfortably. Alliance grew with moderate Unionism opting for them instead of Dodds and the DUP vote dropped in North Belfast. The DUP was effectively beheaded with the loss of Dodds and Unionism in North Belfast is now in a complete mess (as it is everywhere).

Over in FST the campaign was a stark contrast to North Belfast and some will be baffled as to why I considered the Unionist campaign here “unacceptable”, however, there are a number of key reasons why:

– I mentioned in a previous article that Tom Elliott was a reluctant candidate and this showed. The campaign was extremely lacklustre and was so low key it verged on being lazy. It almost resembled the 1981 FST campaign when Harry West of the UUP took on Sinn Fein’s Bobby Sands and lost. The UUP felt that West had ran a lacklustre campaign and decided to go with Ken Maginnis in future Westminster contests (the good old days when there was a backup candidate available). Tom Elliott is not at fault here, the problem for Unionism in FST is that there is nobody else in either the DUP or UUP who could lead such a campaign and win, in previous year Forster could have but is now deemed too toxic.

– Like the DUP in North Belfast, the UUP in FST had a nightmare on social media. A misjudged and inaccurate attack via Elliott’s campaign page on the Alliance party backfired dramatically. It said: “I am amazed that Mr. X describes a convicted IRA bomber as superb”. It is the ongoing own goal that Unionism continually concedes in falsely aligning Alliance to the IRA.

– Tom’s Brexit policy was always a concern. He marketed himself as a “soft Brexiteer” but in an election in which Brexit would be decisive he needed to be more concise.

– Canvassing was very weak. I was canvassed by several other parties but not the UUP. In fact, it was a DUP councillor who canvassed me and I have to say they were very effective. The UUP canvassing team in FST appears to have been very small and elderly, and the DUP team even smaller – big problems for Unionism in the future!

– There was no sign of Steve Aiken in FST to support the campaign and instead he entered the unwinable East Antrim battle only to finish third. Aiken only seems to have become interested in FST when he mentioned during a BBC interview that he was going to make his way to the count centre in Omagh upon hearing the result was “too close to call”. Compare this with Michelle O’Neill who made a number of high-profile visits to FST during the campaign.

– Speaking to some UUP members I heard that they felt they didn’t have the resources to do any more and felt that a bigger campaign would only antagonise opponents. This is a little bit of a cop-out: surely Unionism can run an effective and positive campaign that doesn’t antagonise others!

– Overall there was the vibe in FST that Tom’s heart was not in it and as a result, many were put off voting for him. In fact some chose Alliance as an alternative and I even know a few Unionists who opted for the SDLP.

In the end the FST seat was lost by 57 votes and while some have praised the campaign as being “effective” and “under the radar” the reality is that this was a fluke that it was so close. The Unionist campaign was invisible and clearly a missed opportunity.  Unionism is reeling that it did not get its vote out and like Nigel Dodds in North Belfast it was a failed campaign that resulted in a reduced Unionist turnout. For me two very different types of Unionists and two men whom I respected most within the Unionist family are likely to bow out of frontline politics, it’s a shame that in some ways they were the authors of their own downfall but in other ways their teams let them down and cost them the election.

There are many lessons to learn from these campaigns that feed into the wider Unionist problems but a simple snapshot to start from is as follows:

– Unionism needs a positive vision that everyone can buy into.

– Unionism needs a new leader

– Unionism needs to clean up its act

– The Sinn Fein bogeyman has gone

– Alliance are not the political wing of the IRA

– Unionism needs to collectively call out unacceptable Unionist behaviour

– Lacklustre candidates are not the answer

– Loyalist need to be included within the political process but they also have to act within the law

– A liberal Unionists vote is of no less value than the vote of a non-liberal Unionist.

– Unionism needs a positive vision that everyone can buy into.

– Fear and paranoia lose elections

– Unionist party memberships for both UUP and DUP are too old and small

– Political Unionism is bereft of females and in FST bereft of youth

– Unionism needs to reach out to others

As for FST and North Belfast, the next few months need to be spent doing a washup of what went wrong which will feed into the wider Unionist narrative.

The parties also need to look ahead to who will be their next Westminster candidate: this person needs to spend the time from now to then getting involved in the community, learning their craft and building their profile. There is no point parachuting someone in at the last minute, Unionism needs to be more strategic and one of those strategic strands should be building towards the next Westminster elections. Finding the right candidates will be difficult but there are also so many other difficult issues to deal with.

We’ve circled the wagons, but many of our defenders are now dead and several wagons are on fire…..

Cuilcagh, Fermanagh” by Carl Meehan is licensed under CC BY

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