Northern Ireland now has two political cultures, an eastern ‘republic’ and western ‘principality’

Machiavelli in his famous handbook for democratic survival The Prince divided all states into either republics or principalities. The former were easily overrun, but hard to retain. With the latter once conquered, there is great ease in holding it. 

This morning, Northern Ireland has two distinct political cultures. East of the Bann where voters will not tolerate any failure in their politicians, whereas in the west and south where no matter who is standing, the Sinn Fein brand has become everything.

Sinn Féin’s Dáire Hughes, for example, had never won an election before. Though a former mayor of the defunct Newry and Mourne Council he was co-opted and appointed by the party, and didn’t run in the last local elections. That’s real dominance.

It may come to something when the winner of the night in Northern Ireland comes back with the same number of seats. That would be to ignore the fact that Sinn Féín are a hop skip and jump from total dominance of one whole half of Northern Ireland.

They finally put Fermanagh and South Tyrone beyond all doubt. And in Foyle and East Londonderry the party also served notice that they are breathing down the necks of the SDLP leader and the one remaining Unionist MP west of the Bann.

Pat Cullen MP paid tribute to her predecessor an emotional Michelle Gildernew cradled between Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonnell, a reminder that the other half of their calculated risk in running her in the European elections met a different fate.

One sharp observer (close to Slugger) noted that whilst the SDLP protested public faith in their South Down candidate, MLA Colin McGrath, would build on the challenge of Michael Savage (who left politics for a ‘real’ job) it wasn’t in their final email.

That party set out to hold what they had, much like Sinn Fein, but unlike Sinn Fein they had no serious plans for attack. Given how low they have been in the polls, this was a sensible strategy. Such seats are a huge resource lifeline for small parties.

Whilst the west moves towards a rather happy single party monopoly the eastern end of Northern Ireland remains chaotic, competitive and unpredictable. All four of the seats I’d marked red in my notes for RTÉ’s overnight coverage did not disappoint.

But I had no idea that Ian Paisley would finally face the recall election he dodged a few years ago when he received a 30-day suspension of DUP MP over holidays worth £50,000 that he failed to declare in the HoC register. They waited and got him.

Though on my red list of changeable seats was I sure that Sorcha Eastwood would rollover all three of the main unionist parties to become Lagan Valley’s first non unionist and first woman MP.  As it turned out, it compensated for the loss of North Down.

The money will be useful as will, ironically, not losing the leader to Westminster. Although Naomi Long lost quite handily to the DUP leader in East Belfast it could well have proven to be a radical inconvenience to have to run the party from London.

There are two Northern Irelands now: in the south and west a closed shop that endures tiny episodic challenges to the hegemony of Sinn Fein, and an east where a struggle between parties with liberal and conservative values duke it out.

Michelle O’Neill mentons change. But the significant change factor is not her successful consolidation of the Sinn Fein vote, but that in the more populous east, small ‘u’ unionist voters will merrily throw any politician who displeases them under the bus.

That’s not a divide, it’s a gulf. While small ‘u’ unionists are not afraid of a United Ireland nor will they buy any old pig in a poke. Ironically perhaps (though perhaps not) by Machiavelli’s measure the east behaves like a republic and the west a principality.

Consolidation (whilst impressive in this case) is not change The monoculture of the west can be a comfort zone that makes those who rely upon them ill equipped for ‘republicans’ who see no party nor politician they won’t tear down when it merits it.

Jim Allister and Alex Easton, two former DUP public representatives who split with the party for very different reasons both agreed that unionism needed to come together. In Jim’s case, only if they agree he was right about the Irish Sea border.

It only makes sense under the First Past the Post system. STV PR allows for a degree of co-habitation and fragmentation without damaging the overall outcome. It is likely to fall on deaf ears as the population continues to enjoy its new found power.

Starmer’s uber disciplined landslide on a tiny percentage of the popular vote, paid off one, through a laser tight focus on key constituencies and two because the Tories were not only tragically divided internally, but then externally busted by Reform.

Last word to that most unlikely of ‘new testament’ prophets, Gregory Campbell, “we must build a better future for our people”, both “those we agree with and those we disagree with.” Beastliness has a place in politics, but it’s not the vote winner it once was.

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