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Northern elections see advances for Unionist far right

One of the clichés about politics in the North is that nothing really changes.  When it comes to elections the belief is that they tend to produce similar results to the ones held previously.  While in broad terms such a view may have some validity - in that elections are always dominated by the political parties that represent unionism or nationalism – what it ignores are the shifts that take place within each bloc. 

This is particularly the case within unionism, which since the early seventies has seen the shattering of a one party monolith and the emergence of dozens of factions.  In the recent period of the peace process we have seen the dominance of the UUP overturned by the DUP.  In every case a shift within unionism has been a shift to the right as support has drained away from the faction that is viewed as being too accommodating towards nationalists.  This was the fate of the Faulkner unionists in the 70s and the Trimble unionists in the early 2000’s.   Most recently it was the fate of Ian Paisley who had been chief tormentor of those other unionist leaders. 

 Paisley’s hard-line credentials and the success of the DUP in moulding the political process more to its liking could not prevent the emergence of opposition from both within and without his party. 

No Accommodation

The reality is that there was and continues to be a solid bloc within unionism that is opposed to even the most minimal form of accommodation (as represented by the St Andrews Agreement) with nationalists.  What the  results of the most recent elections demonstrate is that unionist opinion is shifting even further in this direction. 

The most obvious manifestation of this trend is the increase in support for Jim Allister and the TUV.  In the council elections the party more the doubled its  vote in percentage terms (2% to 4.51%) and increased its number of representatives from six to thirteen.  It did even better in the European election with Jim Allister taking 75,000 votes (almost 13% of the total).   Attacking the DUP from the the right (on issues such as the  redevelopment of the Maze site) also reaped benefits for the UUP with the party recording an increase in its vote for the first time in 25 years.    The revival of the PUP, political front for the UVF, undoubtedly owed much  to its prominence in agitation around flags and parades over the past 18 months.  Add to this the breakthrough of the anti-immigrant UKIP – electing three councillors and achieving  24,000 votes  in the European election.   This shift to the right took its toll on support for the DUP with the party's council vote falling  by  34,535 and its share of the popular vote declining by 4.1%.   In the European poll its election candidate  had to rely on transfers from  Jim Allister to get elected. 

Right advance

The advance of parties attacking it from the right have deprived the DUP its position as the the biggest party in the Northern statelet.   This is significant because if the same result was repeated in the Assembly election in 2016 the DUP would no longer  be the biggest party and could not claim the post of First Minister.   This scenario would certainly create a crisis as unionists would be very unlikely to support an executive  headed by a a Sinn Fein First Minister. 

In  the next period the DUP will be seeking to regain the the support they have lost by moving closer to their  unionist critics and identifying issues, such as flags and parades, on which they can demonstrate that nationalists are getting nothing out of the  political settlement.  Layer onto this increasing anti immigrant sentiment and benefit cuts and you really have a rancid political  environment.

Liberal failure

In contrast to the success of the unionist right was the failure of yet other liberal unionist project in the form of NI21.  Despite being actively promoted by sections of the media it recorded a very poor vote in the elections.  Even if the party hadn't been hit with splits and  claims of sexual harassment on the eve of the poll it is doubtful whether its performance would have been any better.  Its demise has illustrated once again the illusion that unionism can be liberalised or detached from sectarianism. 

What the elections demonstrate is that that unionism thrives on the back of heightened sectarian sentiment.  This is especially the case when it becomes obvious, as it was around the flags issue, that the British policy is to  conciliate the bigots. Unionist parties were able to  motivate enough people around  issues such as flags and parades to push the total pro-union vote above fifty per cent.  Given this success, and with further elections coming up in 2015 and 2016, why would they not continue on this course?

Poor Result

While Sinn Fein topped the poll in both elections this masked a generally poor result by nationalism.  It’s share of the vote fell from 42.2% to 38.5% - its worst combined performance in 25 years and well down from its peak vote of 45.4% in 1999.   This really undermines the Sinn Fein narrative that demographic changes and  a rising tide of nationalism in the north will advance the cause of a united Ireland.  These election results actually add weight to recent surveys which show that support for a united Ireland has fallen dramatically.  The increase in non voting and also the election of a number of  independent republican candidates suggest a growing disillusionment  with the political settlement amongst nationalists.  However, this is not yet at a level that poses a threat to Sinn Fein. 

Limited scenario

The political settlement is decaying and is likely to fall to the advance of the  unionist far right.  Is this scenario the options for Sinn Fein are extremely limited.  The only strategy they have is to sustain  Peter Robinson by  making further  concessions to the demands  of the  DUP.  We can see this in the talks that are going on to get an Orange march past Ardoyne and in the efforts to find agreement  on benefit  cuts. 

Yet this is only likely to embolden  the  most rabid  elements within and without the DUP and actually accelerate the process of decay.  Sinn Fein has also been  calling for the British and Irish governments to get  involved.  But the Irish government is satisfied with the settlement and the British have shown no will to press the unionists.  This is even less likely with David Cameron courting unionist support for a potential Conservative government after next year's general   election.

One possible plan B in the event of the collapse of  political institutions would be the transfer of powers to the new 11 super councils.  Of course the critical difference is that the new councils are not bound by any power sharing obligations.   Most of the councils, certainly those dominated by unionists, would be run on the basis of majority rule.  So in place of the Assembly and  executive we could have six or seven mini Stormonts.  When we consider that the councils will have planning powers and therefore the power to dispense sectarian  patronage and the housing powers will pass to housing associations closely tied to the councils the rise of  sectarianism is bound to continue.

This may not be a complete roll back to unionist domination but for many unionists it would be preferable to the status quo and with the advance of the unionist far right it has become a more likely prospect. 


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