Nelson McCausland: Both unionist parties have a role to play in reversing the surge in Sinn Fein support
Anger at the election result needs to be harnessed to protect the Union, writes Nelson McCausland.
Last Thursday was a black day for Ulster and for unionism, and many unionists were shocked by the result of what had been a brutal election. Over the weekend, I spoke to quite a number of unionists, who are not members of any political party, and there was a palpable sense of shock, which was deepened by the triumphalism of Gerry Adams.
However, I have detected more than shock: I have also detected anger and determination and that energy needs to be harnessed and channelled.
The DUP have returned to a smaller Assembly as the largest party with 28 seats, but Sinn Fein have 27, the SDLP have 12 and the UUP have dropped behind them with just 10. The DUP increased their vote, but there was an unexpected surge in the vote for Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams was able to describe it as a “watershed” election.
Now, it is imperative that the unionist parties and unionist people think carefully about how this happened and what they can do to counter the Sinn Fein surge.
One factor was undoubtedly Mike Nesbitt’s announcement that he intended to vote for the UUP and then transfer to the SDLP and Alliance. That surprised many of his party members and some were so outraged that they distanced themselves from it. However, some unionists followed his lead and that cost the unionist family votes and seats.
This had not been thought through by Nesbitt, but it was the natural outworking of his equally ill-considered slogan, “Vote Mike, get Colum”.
Of course, Mike Nesbitt was a relative newcomer to politics, elected to the Assembly in May 2011 and becoming party leader in March 2012. His lack of experience and political acumen damaged both his own party and the unionist family.
However, there is no denying that Sinn Fein mounted a cynical and clinical operation. Last year, they were under pressure from their members and they were stung by the criticisms of other nationalists. The centenary of 1916 had not produced a united Ireland, merely a paltry parade up the Falls Road.
The outcome of the 2016 election was another blow, with a drop in the Sinn Fein vote and a DUP majority of 10. The position of the SDLP outside the Executive was another destabilising factor for Sinn Fein.
Some critics had described them as “rollover republicans” and Sinn Fein find it hard to cope with such criticism.
In the end, they decided that the best way to deal with this situation was to force an election on their terms, at a time of their choosing and after a period of preparation — all of it “under the radar”.
Motivation, registration and organisation were the three keys to their success. They had honed their messages and highlighted their perceived grievances.
The “faux outrage” about the “crocodile” analogy came from a party whose leader described unionists as “b*******” and whose members have likened the Orange Order to the KKK. It was “manufactured outrage”, but it gained traction within nationalism and helped to galvanise nationalists to turn out for Sinn Fein.
From December onwards, the DUP suffered a sustained assault from other parties, including Mike Nesbitt’s UUP, and from much of the media over the RHI scheme. Sinn Fein decided that the DUP’s difficulty was their opportunity and it was time to strike.
The Sinn Fein surge was partly due to a higher turnout and, so, in West Belfast, the turnout increased from 56% to 66%. But it also involved a return of wandering republicans to the Sinn Fein fold and that was reflected in a sharp decline in the vote for People Before Profit.
However, this is fixable. Arlene Foster has called for a “coming together” of unionist parties and that is good, but it is only part of the answer.
There are many other things that need to be done if unionism is to reverse the Sinn Fein surge and both the unionist parties and the unionist people have a role to play.