Belfast Telegraph

EU Election 2019

Tom Kelly: Naomi Long is proving popular as voters long for change

Results show fresh new wind is blowing across political landscape of Northern Ireland, writes Tom Kelly

Alliance leader Naomi Long is congratulated by Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson
Alliance leader Naomi Long is congratulated by Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson
It was a bad day for UUP leader Robin Swann and party MEP candidate Danny Kennedy
Colum Eastwood

By Tom Kelly

Only three weeks ago, I wrote, there's something about Naomi, and the EU elections have certainly proved that. Naomi Long is a tenacious advocate for liberalism and the middle ground. Northern Ireland voters seem to like the cut of her jib.

The Alliance EU campaign, like the local government one, was a continuation of the presidential-style investment in the cult of their leader. And it works.

In particular, for those tens of thousands of pro-European unionist voters who were all but abandoned by the mainstream unionist parties, who saw a new political home provided by Naomi and Alliance.

Naomi's performance means she could be in co-pole position with Claire Hanna of the SDLP to take a Westminster seat from the DUP - but with the caveat that she can't hog all her party's opportunities. But May 27 is like having a second birthday and only a curmudgeon wouldn't wish her well.

So Northern Ireland now has three female MEPs, but with the exception that two of the three MEPs are now solidly pro-European.

Under the current demographics, the expectation of two nationalist pro-European parties going to Brussels was too big an ask.

Northern Ireland isn't quite ready for that amount of change.

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The DUP have now played runner-up to Sinn Fein in a third European election - though the margin is by much less. The DUP, TUV and Ukip have lost tens of thousands of votes since the last EU elections. Diane Dodds remains the DUP standard-bearer, solid and dependable, though the voting highs of both Ian Paisley and Jim Allister are now well beyond her reach. Dodds can be content with being the first to hit the quota on transfers.

However, the big losers are the Ulster Unionists - neither fish nor fowl under the leadership of the hapless, but nice Robin Swann, the party have finally plummeted to new lows.

Swann has not cut any clear path for his party. His instincts to do the right thing are often undermined by his near-hypnotic behaviour to ape the DUP.

The party need a new leader - a Nesbitt-type leader who understands pluralism and appeals to younger voters. Robin Swann is the political equivalent of Coronation Street's Norris Cole.

Danny Kennedy was placed in an impossible position, as a border unionist who supported Remain, but had to defend the ridiculous pro-Brexit position of his party grandees.

The SDLP campaign team will be disappointed by the strong performance of Naomi Long, but should not be too despondent.

Colum Eastwood (right) ran a positive and energetic campaign - the best the SDLP have had in years. The SDLP percentage of the vote increased from the local government elections and the wider voter haemorrhaging seems to have been cauterised.

There was also clear evidence that Sinn Fein opted for a deliberate tactical policy of encouraging transfers to Alliance over the SDLP as a way of limiting any surge in the nationalist vote - a first for Sinn Fein since 1979.

The SDLP leader has proven his party isn't going away and, unlike Robin Swann, his voter base is not deserting him.

Martina Anderson, the Sinn Fein MEP, has given a solid performance for her party against a calamitous election in the Republic of Ireland. That said, the Sinn Fein EU vote is down by 3.3% in Northern Ireland from the last EU election, which in voting terms is just under a whopping 33,000 voters who have either stayed at home, or opted for an alternative.

No party can seriously have a strategy which purposefully reduces their share of the vote. Anderson is, though, comfortably ahead of Dodds in topping the poll.

The DUP versus Sinn Fein tussle is a long way off the gladiatorial contests between the DUP's Ian Paisley and the SDLP's John Hume, who in their last outing against each other got a staggering 192,000 and 190,000 first preference votes respectively.

That Sinn Fein dropped over three percentage points in Northern Ireland is significant, because they appeared to have nationalist voters in a semi-permanent electoral lockdown since 2001.

Sinn Fein are at their electoral best when agitating and Brexit in some ways preserved their base in Northern Ireland in a way that it couldn't in the Republic.

Mary Lou, the Sinn Fein president, is making no great shakes of her leadership; the presidential election results, along with the local government and EU results, show that Sinn Fein under her are on the slide.

In 2015, they secured an impressive 15% of the vote in the Republic; today it's just over 9%.

Sinn Fein's vice-president, Michelle O'Neill (or leader of Sinn Fein-NI), has been sheltered from the voting collapse because of the dominance of identity politics over issues and policies within the north.

The uncompromising attitude of the DUP towards all things Irish also shores up Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. That said, the Sinn Fein leadership have some serious thinking to do - something acknowledged by senior TDs. The invincibility of Sinn Fein has been pierced and it is not going to be contained at the border for much longer. Sinn Fein can't cope with a buoyant Irish economy and record levels of employment.

It's hard to believe they couldn't politically capitalise on the housing crisis in Dublin. They are being challenged in Dublin working-class areas by a resurgent Fianna Fail and now the Greens.

Independents and People Before Profit are to the left of them. Even in West Belfast and Derry, People Before Profit are proving better street agitators than Sinn Fein.

In Northern Ireland, a Sinn Fein supporter informed this writer that former senior republicans had told him that they would prefer to support Alliance over the SDLP, because of the SDLP's decision to abstain on the Spad Bill taken to the Assembly by TUV leader Jim Allister in 2013.

If true, this would be ironic, as it was Alliance voting with the other unionist parties that delivered the Bill and it was the Greens who voted with Sinn Fein against it. It would seem some in Sinn Fein's old guard can't rise above grudge/revenge politics even within the wider nationalist family.

With the revolutionary days over and the smell of sulphur a distant memory, Sinn Fein need to find a new purpose and champion issues beyond the politics of protest. It remains to be seen if that can be delivered by the current duo. But, north and south, change is definitely a-coming and parties should be prepared to be blown along with the change, or be swept away.

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

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