Belfast Telegraph

Unionist strength is not enough to fight off austerity

By Liam Clarke

This is a day for holding hands up. We commentators didn't forecast how well the unionist pact would work, especially for the UUP.

In the past, pact candidates have generally not gained as many votes as a variety of unionist candidates would. Voters tend to like choice, but that wasn't much in evidence in the four pact seats. The other side of this is that the UUP will have a hard time extricating itself from Westminster pacts after this.

The discipline was particularly obvious, because it gained the UUP's Tom Elliott Fermanagh and South Tyrone (FST).There has traditionally been very bad blood between the UUP and DUP in FST. Arlene Foster, the DUP minister who is an MLA in the area, left the UUP. Now it seems that the two parties have found a way to work together again.

Mr Elliott is unlikely to get in again without a pact. His majority of 530 votes shows that. There is in fact a natural nationalist majority in the constituency, which was 57.69% Catholic by background in the last census.

The dynamics were in complete contrast in South Antrim, the other seat which the UUP gained. There was no pact here. Instead Danny Kinahan, a noted liberal, took on the Rev Willie McCrea. Rev McCrea is on the religious right of the DUP. Here the majority was 949 votes, still close, but voters seem to have been motivated by the clear choice.

The UUP therefore has a dilemma. If it sticks close to the DUP it helps Mr Elliott, but risks getting sucked into the bigger party's orbit. If it makes a clear distinction, Mr Kinahan is likely to benefit, but Mr Elliott could suffer. This is an issue to watch in parliament where the DUP want other unionist MPs to form a negotiating block with them.

The pact delivered for the DUP by winning it one seat in East Belfast off Alliance's Naomi Long. This was the party's major objective in the election and it looks as if it couldn't have been won without a pact. Ms Long actually increased her vote by 5.6% but still lost to Mr Robinson whose vote went up more.

It also secured Nigel Dodds in North Belfast; his vote was up 7% on the last election. The DUP will continue to need a pact in this marginal seat in order to feel any comfort.

The DUP majored on the prospect of a hung parliament with them supporting a Government in return for concessions. That hasn't materialised but they may still have increased influence given the Tories' slender parliamentary majority.

David Cameron knows that in the course of this parliament, Tory MPs may die, rebel, get sick or otherwise be unable to vote. Then he will have to look around for support and must be prepared to pay a price.

He doesn't have to rely on the DUP, though. The Lib Dems and even Ukip are still there, so the price has to be reasonable.

Money may be easier to extract than new legislation on flags and parading or a constitutional commission. That could raise Tory fears of nationalist opposition destabilising Northern Ireland and of importing our concerns to Westminster.

The money won't be a bottomless pit; Mr Cameron doesn't have to do that. He has other options so, while the DUP have a hand to play, so do other parties.

The legacy of the Troubles is one such area, but we would have to reach agreement on what to do locally first and that has proved elusive. Mental health, which is also partly a Troubles legacy, is another.

But the fact is that we are facing into three or more years of austerity. Unionism has done well in this election but not well enough to stop that happening.

Belfast Telegraph


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