Euro vote sends warning to DUP
10 June 2009
The eventual outcome of the European election in the north - the DUP, UUP and Sinn Fein taking the three available seats - may have been predictable. However, it is the strong performance of the anti-agreement candidate Jim Allister that is the real story of the election. He polled 66,197 first preference votes, 14 per cent of the total, and almost 30 per cent of the votes cast for unionist candidates. This corresponded almost exactly with the fall in support for the DUP whose candidate polled 88,346 votes, 18 per cent of the total. This is down from the 32 per cent in the previous election in 2004. Diane Dodds was only elected on the third round of the count. The three-way split in the unionist vote allowed Sinn Feinís Bairbre de Brun to top the poll, though the partyís share of the vote did not increase on last time, remaining static at 26 percent. It was a similar story for the SDLP whose vote remained around 16 per cent. One other significant feature of the election was the low turnout of less than 43 per cent, a major drop on the figure of 51.7 per cent turnout at the last European election.
While pundits and commentators had been predicting a respectable showing for Allister, his total of almost seventy thousand votes was well beyond anything that could be considered comfortable by the DUP. If such an outcome were repeated at a subsequent Westminster or Assembly elections the party would suffer significant losses. However, it is not primarily a question of the share of the votes between the unionist parties, but what each represents and the divisions within them. You just canít count up the votes for the TUV and designate these as anti-agreement and those for the DUP and UUP as pro-agreement. While Jim Allisterís TUV is uncompromisingly opposed to power sharing, it would be wrong to view the DUP as an unequivocal supporter. A large number of DUP supporters share Allisterís views, accepting power sharing only grudgingly or believing it to be a temporary arrangement.
The strategy of the DUP leadership in the election reflected this. Despite being in a partnership government with Sinn Fein their propaganda was all about how they were thwarting nationalists and frustrating their aspirations. Although refusing to acknowledge Allister, the DUP were effectively in a bidding process with him on who could beat down most heavily upon nationalism. Even when they did challenge Allister it was from an anti-nationalist perspective Ė accusing him of splitting the unionist vote and risking Sinn Fein topping the poll. These are echoes of the strategy the UUP deployed when it went into the earlier power-sharing Executive and was battling the DUP. The eventual outcome of that was the ousting of Trimble as UUP leader and First Minister and the collapse of the Good Friday settlement. The DUP now finds itself in a similar position with the challenge of the TUV to the St Andrews settlement. This ongoing battle within unionism essentially revolves the means by which unionists can maintain their privileged position within the state - whether this is achieved through control of a local assembly or by excluding nationalists altogether in the belief that they wonít be made to pay a political price for this by the British. Over the course of last forty years and through all the various settlements that have been attempted this latter tendency has always won out.
It has been claimed that the endorsement of the DUP and Ian Paisley made the St Andrewís settlement more secure. But it is no more beyond challenge that the UUP before. Indeed, the claims about the hardliners such as Paisley and Robinson being able to deliver peace were the very same made for Trimble. Their hard-line credentials didnít prevent them being denounced as traitors once they had signed up to power sharing - no matter how favourable its terms for unionism. The fact is that there is, and continues to be, a solid core within unionism that opposes any accommodation with nationalists. They have come to the fore once again and have found an able champion in the form of Jim Allister. However, their success in the European elections should not come as a surprise. It was prefigured last year in the Dromore by-election that saw the TUV take almost 20 per cent of first preference votes. This was one of the triggers for Ian Paisley standing down as DUP leader and First Minister. As in European election the TUV failed to win the seat, but as Jim Allister says they donít have to win in order to win. All they need is enough support to keep the DUP looking over its shoulder.
It is clear that the TUV is not going away and will continue to be a thorn in the side of the DUP. Jim Allister is already taking of standing in the DUP heartland of north Antrim in the next Westminster. At the next Assembly election elections he could take six, eight or more seats. The TUV could change the arithmetic in an Assembly, making Sinn Féin the largest party and putting Martin McGuinness in line for the post of First Minister. However, in such circumstances there wouldnít be an Executive, as no unionist would serve under a Sinn Fein First Minister. An anti-power sharing block of unionists could therefore effectively scupper the whole settlement. If this is a real prospect the DUP may pre-empt an Assembly election by pulling down the Executive, or the British Government intervene to suspend the Assembly and Executive.
In the immediate period the DUP will be looking to win back the support it lost to the TUV by delaying measures such as the devolution of justice and policing powers. In the medium term they will be pushing for an end to mandatory coalition and a re-foundation of the settlement on majority rule. It is only the creation nationalist free Executive that can keep the TUV at bay and keep the Assembly functioning in any meaningful way.
All this creates major problems for Sinn Fein. The muted response of Martin McGuinness to his partyís success in the election shows that they are conscious of the difficulties facing the DUP. They know that a DUP with Allister breathing down its neck will be an increasingly hard-line partner in government. Not that they have got any concessions from the DUP in the first two years of the St Andrews settlement. All their priorities, such as the Irish Language Act, the creation a conflict resolution centre at the former Maze site and the devolution of policing and justice powers have either been dumped or delayed. The only thing that Sinn Fein can point to as progress is their presence in government, and even this may be in doubt. All Martin McGuinness can do is appeal to the DUP to show leadership and face down their opponents just has Sinn Fein has opposed republicans. However there is no indication that the DUP will heed such advice - their reaction to the recent sectarian murder in Coleraine demonstrates that they are more likely to pander to the lowest common denominator within their own community.
What the outcome of European election reveals is that despite all the talk of equality the St Agreement settlement, like all those before it, is dependent upon the support of unionism for its survival. Once this starts to waver the settlement will either be dramatically changed or abandoned. The success of Jim Allister serves to hasten this process.