Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

Jon Tonge: There is much to lament for the big parties, but it's clear Alliance's time has now come

Stephen Farry and Alliance supporters celebrate winning seat in North Down
Stephen Farry and Alliance supporters celebrate winning seat in North Down
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Drawing definitive conclusions in the exhausted aftermath of a dramatic election is not always wise. No sleep can mean rushed judgments.

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With that caveat, Thursday night's drama indicates some potentially profound longer-term trends.

It was less the final seat totals than the nature of some constituency victories that startled in Northern Ireland.

Lest this be viewed as mere after-time wisdom, I did place my forecast in this paper three weeks ago. It said DUP 8, Sinn Fein 7, Alliance 1, SDLP 1 and UUP 1.

Close, but not quite the cigar and while I did not do a GB forecast, the scale of the Corbyn catastrophe far exceeded that expected even by those of us long cynical concerning his capabilities.

Understandably, the widely trumpeted headline is that unionist MPs will provide only a minority of Northern Ireland's Westminster representatives, for the first time ever.

The DUP came perilously close to being wiped out in Belfast amid a three-pronged attack from Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance.

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But as late as Thursday morning, the DUP was still very hopeful of holding North Belfast. I saw some of the bets that had been struck.

Arlene Foster was neither wrong nor sectarian in blaming the grievous blow of losing Nigel Dodds on changing demographics.

Lamenting a pan-nationalist pact will not wash, though, given the pressure placed upon Steve Aiken's UUP to step aside in North Belfast.

Even without a pact, Claire Hanna would almost certainly have won South Belfast for the SDLP.

The 2017 high water mark was always going to be difficult to defend. It is also worth remembering that DUP vote shares have risen more often in elections under Foster's stewardship than they have fallen.

The DUP remains Northern Ireland's largest party.

The DUP's Alex Easton is consoled by his wife Denise
The DUP's Alex Easton is consoled by his wife Denise

That said, previous successes owed something to UUP weakness and Thursday's Belfast and North Down failures, along with several reduced majorities elsewhere, increase the pressure upon her leadership.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who saw his own constituency turn into a semi-marginal, is the obvious Westminster replacement leader for Dodds. His remit might ultimately be extended.

Meanwhile, Alliance's time has come.

The party's voted soared by nearly 9%, to add to the 11% European election increase and 5% in the council contests.

It is Alliance's best year. This surge is causing problems for the UUP, searching for niche pro-Union distinctiveness, but Alliance's extra vote is also coming from those who do not identify as unionist or nationalist. And that is a big and expanding reservoir in which Alliance can fish. What of Sinn Fein? It got the scalp it wanted with the Dodds decapitation and ended the election with the same number of MPs as it started.

Yet overall performance was mediocre at best and occasionally poor.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood handed out a thrashing in Foyle probably beyond his own expectations, let alone anyone else's. This in a city where Sinn Fein had staged its ard fheis, launched its manifesto and brought in hundreds of volunteers in the last month. Sinn Fein's 6% fall in vote share - even allowing for its non-participation in some constituencies - is part of a broader pattern of generally indifferent recent election performances.

While a Boris Brexit will now assist the party in establishing economic structures of unification and in effect special status for 'The North', it seems inconceivable that the Conservative Government will permit a border poll. There is no obvious short-or medium-term route to constitutional unity. The Prime Minister's immediate preoccupation will be somehow attempting to quell the burning independence fires in Scotland.

While the success of the SDLP in Foyle will reawaken criticisms of Sinn Fein's abstention from Westminster, it is unclear why.

The grim truth for even the participatory victorious local MPs is that they will carry precious little clout at Westminster.

They might enjoy the sights but not the politics.

If the PM could discard the DUP so brutally when it held the balance of power, why would he listen to the pleas of 18 MPs who offer zero threat to his 78-seat majority?

So abstention may remain a non-issue within Sinn Fein. Even if it could be proved beyond doubt that abstention was harming Sinn Fein's electoral fortunes, the party leadership would be wary of touching the issue.

A two-thirds majority of members would be needed for change and risks a split. And anyone who thinks a split in the republican movement does not have its problems has slept through the last century.

If locally elected politicians want power, they will need to restore Stormont.

That is a possible outcome of Thursday's results.

Sinn Fein would have a power base. The DUP might take the view that an Irish Language Act, in broader form, is the bitter pill that needs swallowing to avoid the grim vista of power being confined to local councils for at least half a generation.

But such DUP willingness would be conditional upon them being still the largest party and providing the first minister after the next set of elections to the phantom Assembly, presumably in spring.

Ready for yet more hot contests then?

  • Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and Principal Investigator of the ESRC 2019 Northern Ireland election study

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