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DUP thankful for Foster factor - and lack of true rival in unionism

The 38-seat Assembly election haul for the DUP surprised even party managers (who thought it would lose four). So, how to account for the success? A unifying leader... and textbook vote management, writes Jon Tonge.

Published 13/05/2016

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster celebrates with party colleagues at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast after taking three seats in North Belfast
DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster celebrates with party colleagues at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast after taking three seats in North Belfast

The DUP's stunning success in returning unscathed, numbers-wise, at last week's Assembly election defied most predictions. Even those of us who had predicted little change (a loss of two seats to the UUP was my forecast) were slightly surprised at the capacity of the DUP to hold all of what it held.

The party had briefed that a loss of "around four seats" was expected from the 38 of 2011 given that, in the words of one senior source, it was "unlikely that the ball would bounce as favourably". Yet 86% of DUP candidates were elected. So how did it happen?

Firstly, the choice of Arlene Foster as leader was a good one. That's not just hindsight. It was obvious at the time of her elevation that Foster could appeal to a broad swathe of unionists - Church of Ireland moderates and hardline Free Presbyterians; Orange and non-Orange; men and women, border and urban unionists.

Untypical of her party (only 27% female and 28% Church of Ireland), but sharing its robustness, Foster's appeal traverses internal unionist boundaries.

Secondly, it offered effective election messages. While there was predictable criticism of the DUP's "Stop Martin becoming First Minister" approach, there is still mileage in old-style sectarian head-counting.

Those who don't like that sort of politics don't vote, with non-voting particularly high among the young, although that problem is not exclusive to Northern Ireland.

Not unreasonably, the DUP prefers to concentrate upon the 55% who do vote.

Thirdly, "soft" liberal politics still does not cut it. We may have had a DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly for almost a decade at Stormont but the mutual loathing of the support bases remains intact if we look at vote transfers.

Less than 1% of DUP and UUP transfer votes went to Sinn Fein. DUP to DUP surpluses ran at over 70%, with around 20% going to the UUP.

The First Minister's own surplus provided a typical example - although here there were some cross-community final transfers from the UUP to the SDLP, depriving Sinn Fein of a third seat.

For all the talk of a new Northern Ireland and a mellow campaign lacking in orange versus green heat, ethnic bloc-voting on traditional lines remains very dominant.

The DUP countered the "Arlene for First Minister" critics by asking which political party goes out campaigning NOT wanting to win an election?

The DUP also knew not to rely solely on the old "keep themuns" out - hence the accompanying, much more positive, five-point plan.

The plan was little more than a wish-list - in the same way I "plan" to win the Lottery this weekend. It aspired to "create more jobs" and "raise standards in education" - as if opponents planned redundancies and a lowering of educational attainment - but created a useful aspirational image.

Fourthly, vote-management was exceptionally good (again). Only six candidates did not make it to the Assembly.

With careful poster balances and campaigns for all its candidates in different parts of each constituency, the spread of first preference votes between each candidate was admirably narrow: the average differential between the vote for each DUP candidate and their nearest running mate in the poll was only 2%, compared to almost 4% for the UUP.

The UUP's constituency strategies require examination. Optimism is laudable, but fielding three candidates in both South and East Antrim veered on the side of giddiness.

None of the above is to argue that the UUP ran a bad campaign. This wasn't November 2003, or Upper Bann 2005.

Foster's brief recalling of "pushover unionism" during the second leaders' debate threatened, momentarily, to take us back to those days.

Mike Nesbitt may have read the bad news for the UUP on TV at the time, but I'm not sure the newscaster was responsible for the news. The UUP may have struggled to attack the DUP, but likewise the old DUP criticisms of the UUP have reached the end of their shelf-life.

As the Westminster election last year showed, Nesbitt has stopped the rot and this year his party hoovered the Assembly defector debris, without making further advances.

The 'Make it Work' election slogan was reasonable. The party offered useful ideas on, for example, mental health and wellbeing, but needs more.

The UUP's vote share fell less than the other main parties, although that is damning with faint praise. The lack of representation in Belfast (just one MLA) is stark.

The UUP needs to explain more clearly why voting for a 16-seat Assembly party is a better idea than for its bigger rival, given the communal head-counting problem.

The UUP's continuing sizeable membership (much larger than the DUP's) ought to be capable of advancing party messages.

It will also help the UUP that the contest within unionism is not muddied by other parties. While mainstream republicanism is challenged by poll-topping People Before Profit Leftist radicalism - The Internationale versus A Soldier's Song - you can forget the minor unionist parties in Assembly contests.

The PUP might hold a few council seats, but doesn't have strength beyond. Ukip and the Northern Ireland Tories are an irrelevance. That leaves only the forensic brilliance-cum-pantomine villainy of Jim Allister. The Traditional Unionist Voice will always be a lonely one.

So, what happens next? Having felt obliged to play the 'Stop Sinn Fein' card in the early months of her tenure, a long break before the next set of elections will allow us to see whether the First Minister really wishes to usher in an era of politics owing less to the past.

The DUP's ministerial portfolio choices will be interesting - posts and personnel-wise. Control of the Finance ministry may be hard to relinquish - especially to Sinn Fein - even if the Department for the Economy offers a more strategic role as corporation tax is lowered.

The DUP might well covet Education, to "maintain support for academic selection", a manifesto commitment. A period in Opposition may sharpen the clarity of UUP messages in response. But the dilemma is, what will it find in the utopianism of the DUP's five-point plan to oppose?

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. He co-authored The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power and is co-authoring The Ulster Unionist Party: Decline And Rebirth (both Oxford University Press)

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