Belfast Telegraph

NI Election: DUP and UUP fighting for futures in crisis of their own making

Arlene Foster and Mike Nesbitt landed themselves in dire straits by misjudging public mood, says Jon Tonge

Where does the DUP go now? To lose 90% of a 10-seat lead over Sinn Fein and preside over the end of unionism's 96-year majority is remarkable. This from a party that once pledged to smash Sinn Fein.

Unionism's majority status may never return. The demographics and ideological affiliations - sectarian headcounting, if you prefer - that founded and maintained unionist Northern Ireland are being transformed.

Only one-third of voters now identify as unionist - and only one in five 18 to 24-year-olds.

It's not that there's been a headlong rush towards nationalism - its share of identifiers has held steady since the Belfast Agreement.

The largest category of elector is that rejecting the old unionist and nationalist labels. And, for a change, many came out to vote last Thursday, and nationalist voters came out in droves.

Far from being an election that Northern Ireland didn't want, the contest became therapy for voters determined to give the DUP a kicking.

My pre-election forecast, offered in February, was 29 DUP seats and 27 for Sinn Fein. Much as I would love to claim this as a major triumph of political science, it was starkly apparent that the DUP was in a very vulnerable position.

In half of the 18 constituencies the DUP held three seats. Getting three back safely in five-seat constituencies was always going to be problematic, but the party attempted it in eight of the nine. It succeeded only in Strangford.

The DUP's 38-seat high-water mark was endangered by a pincer movement. Non-unionist voters getting off their backsides spelled trouble in one-time unionist constituencies that have become more middle-class and less overtly unionist, such as East and South Belfast.

The big increase in nationalist turnout also led to DUP losses in more mixed seats such as Fermanagh and South Tyrone and East Londonderry.

The election was never about the DUP warding off a slight threat from the UUP. The DUP did very well within unionism. Its share of the vote amongst the three unionist Assembly parties was unchanged at 65%.

At 74%, the DUP's candidate success rate fell from the stunning 86% figure in 2016, but was not bad and 33% higher than the UUP's, although 5% below that of Sinn Fein.

Thus, Arlene Foster did not misread the mood within unionism. Any unionist voter over 45 recalls the economic wreckage wreaked by republicans upon Northern Ireland for decades during the Troubles.

Set against that, £500m of poor heating governance by the DUP is loose change, inconsequential in voting allegiance to more hardened unionists.

Instead, Foster miscalculated the strength of feeling within the growing centre ground and, more problematically, among nationalists. This underpinned the fatal assumption that Sinn Fein was too keen on office to ever collapse the Executive.

Her party's excellent electoral and Assembly positions - seats and vetoes in abundance - need not have been jeopardised. Contrition on RHI (without admitting liability) and minor concession on an Irish Language Act could have headed off danger.

Foster was right: Sinn Fein wanted another election because it didn't like the result of the last. But what political party would not want to improve its position? Political antennae might have headed off the prospect.

What of the UUP? There ought to be a special plot reserved in a political graveyard for those Ulster Unionist leaders who went cross-community. RIP Faulkner, Trimble and Nesbitt.

As the latest casualty of the attempt to create small 'u' unionism, Mike Nesbitt can at least be satisfied with the internal reforms he carried out in his party. It is no longer dysfunctional internally and operates as a more streamlined, professional entity.

Nesbitt's determination to modernise his party, break the sectarian logjam and appeal to the widest possible range of voters contained much to admire. He also increased UUP transfers across the divide, but only modestly and from a hideously low base.

Given his non-Orange status, it was unfairly claimed by critics - internal and external - that Nesbitt did not connect with ordinary unionists and loyalists. Yet he would probably be more comfortable sat in a bar with such people discussing their concerns, ranging from education to the relative merits (or otherwise) of Linfield or Glentoran than most previous unionist leaders.

It wasn't that Nesbitt didn't understand unionism. It's where he wanted to take it that worried many.

The UUP's electoral stagnation appears impossible to break. Nesbitt at least stopped the electoral rot, but it is significant that his only genuinely successful election outcome - the return of two MPs to Westminster in 2015 - was when he went pan-unionist. Small 'u' unionists who like cross-community ideas are already catered for. The party's called Alliance.

Having dallied with the Conservatives, DUP and SDLP, the UUP's political promiscuity needs to cease. The clue to the party's identity lies in its title. Fretting about what its voters get up to down their ballot paper isn't a way to win elections. The UUP's survival is at stake.

It's not always clear why, as the Belfast Agreement fautlines fade, there are two unionist parties.

Treating abortion and same-sex marriage as conscience issues, not party policy, isn't sufficient difference to justify having two parties. How many unionist voters could identity three policy differences between the DUP and UUP? Yet for reasons of history, image and members - the UUP still has a sizeable number and it doesn't like the DUP - two unionist parties remain.

But will anyone return to government? Perhaps, for there is no obvious alternative.

For the DUP, Foster may step down temporarily to allow the devolution show to remain on the road.

One wonders whether it is nationalist voters or James Brokenshire - otherwise facing the gloomy prospect of pretending direct rule isn't really direct rule - who are keener for her departure.

If political gravity shifts to Westminster, Nigel Dodds is the obvious DUP leadership successor. But if Stormont remains because Foster doesn't, the next DUP leader - caretaker or otherwise - is less certain. And unionism has enough problems without the TUV being its only Assembly party with a leader.

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of The Democratic Unionist Party: From Protest To Power. He is currently co-authoring a study of the UUP

Results centre - select a constituency - every result as it happened -

North Antrim - East Antrim - South Antrim - North Belfast - East Belfast - South Belfast - West Belfast - Strangford - South Down - Lagan Valley - Upper Bann - Newry and Armagh - Fermanagh & South Tyrone - West Tyrone - Mid Ulster - East Londonderry - Foyle - North Down

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