Belfast Telegraph

EU Election 2019

Suzanne Breen: Passion has been brought to middle ground as UUP flounder

Disappointment: Danny Kennedy
Disappointment: Danny Kennedy
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

It was billed as a tight race for Northern Ireland's third EU seat. In the end, it was anything but close as Naomi Long coasted home with a vote twice as big as the Ulster Unionists and almost 30,000 ahead of the SDLP.

And she even managed to be elected second, with transfers bringing her in almost 20,000 votes ahead of Sinn Fein.

Alliance entered the council election hoping to break through the magic 10% barrier. Never could it have imagined three weeks later that it would secure a staggering 19% vote, the highest ever since its formation almost half a century ago.

The person who has made it all possible is Naomi Long.

Before her leadership, the party was seen as worthy but dull - dominated by do-gooders who, no matter how well-meaning, would bore you to death. Long has impressively rebranded Alliance and brought passion and fire to the middle ground.

The party is now facing a problem caused by its own success - it is losing its greatest asset to Brussels. Mrs Long will have to resign as an MLA with another member co-opted into her seat.

While Alliance has very competent performers in its Stormont ranks, none possess its leader's star quality.

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Although it goes entirely against its ideological grain, a speedy Brexit which sees Mrs Long home by the end of the year and back in the front-line in a restored Assembly would be no bad thing for the party.

Once Brussels was a place for the men in grey suits but for the first time ever Northern Ireland returned three female MEPs.

The election was an absolute disaster for the Ulster Unionists, with Danny Kennedy losing their seat. The party was in trouble when Mike Nesbitt resigned as leader in 2017. It had two MPs, an MEP, and 88 councillors then.

Now, it has no representation in Westminster or Brussels and 75 councillors - reduced to just two members (technically one) in the Belfast City Hall it ran in its heyday.

It lagged in sixth yesterday, behind the TUV. Its EU campaign unfortunately summed up the party - lacklustre and with no clear message.

It is almost impossible to see the UUP becoming competitive again. It has often (correctly) complained that elections here are just sectarian headcounts which favour the two big beasts.

Yet this month's council and EU polls were far less that than any others in recent decades, and the UUP still lost significant ground.

Robin Swann can't be blamed for the problems his party is facing because he inherited them. The UUP shied away from taking bold decisions about its political direction in 2017, preferring just to stick with the old familiar, failing approach.

But it seems apparent that Mr Swann has no clear road map for the way ahead.

Indeed, one likely doesn't exist. Traditional unionists will continue to stick with the DUP, liberal ones won't be leaving Alliance now. Despite two poor elections, he is unlikely to be challenged for the leadership because nobody in their right mind would want it.

It was a good election for the DUP. Diane Dodds reduced Sinn Fein's lead from 29,000 to 2,000 votes and was elected two counts ahead of Martina Anderson. Mrs Dodds has never had the spectacular victories that her predecessors, Rev Ian Paisley and Jim Allister, enjoyed. Yet she still increased the vote and her party will be well pleased with the result.

The sharpest minds in the DUP realise that the biggest threat to it in future isn't from a disorganised, dwindling UUP, but from a youthful, energetic, hard-working and well organised Alliance Party.

They realise that unionists, especially young ones, do increasingly vote Alliance and that constantly bashing the party as crypto Provos just won't wash.

Expect those in the DUP who favour a more secular and liberal approach to make their voices heard internally over the next few months.

Coming in comfortably ahead of the UUP was a very good result for Mr Allister who may have initially regretted running for Europe after the TUV's council results. He clearly still has a real future in politics here, although his party is destined to remain largely a one-man band.

It wasn't a bad election for Colum Eastwood who managed to finally halt the SDLP's terminal decline and actually increased its vote, albeit by 0.7%.

Yet disappointment was written all over its leaders faces yesterday. They genuinely expected to be in the running for the last seat and will be concerned at Alliance overtaking them to emerge as the third largest party in the poll. By common agreement across the political spectrum, Mr Eastwood ran the best campaign of all the candidates. Yet the message from the result has to be that, unlike Mrs Long, his personal appeal is not greater than his party's.

Martina Anderson may have topped the poll but don't be fooled into thinking it was a good day here for Sinn Fein whose vote was down 3%.

The party is losing votes to Alliance and the Greens (in the council poll) in middle-class areas while under pressure from People Before Profit and independent republicans in working-class areas. It will now be keener to restore devolution.

In the Republic, Sinn Fein's council vote decreased by a third to just under 10% and it's likely to lose an MEP.

The shine is rapidly coming off Mary Lou McDonald's leadership and expect Gerry Adams to start popping up more in an effort to reassure the base. Further reversals in a Dail election would put the Sinn Fein president on very dodgy territory indeed.

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