Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Old political certainties well and truly swept away by historic Euro election

Nigel Farage and Naomi Long triumphant, while UUP and Sinn Fein given big wake-up call, writes Alban Maginness

There were contrasting fortunes for Mary Lou McDonald and Nigel Farage
There were contrasting fortunes for Mary Lou McDonald and Nigel Farage
There were contrasting fortunes for Mary Lou McDonald and Nigel Farage
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

The European Parliament elections have heralded a political climate change that has swept right across Europe, wiping away old political certainties, not least here. British politics is now in a state of flux given the truly devastating rout of the Conservatives by Nigel Farage's newly formed Brexit Party.

But not only has the Conservative Party been laid low by Farage, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour has suffered serious losses largely due to the surge in support for the Europhile Liberal Democrats and Greens. There is now such a radical change in the political landscape that it is doubtful that the current Conservative Government can survive much longer, even under a new Prime Minister.

The beginning of the election of a new Conservative leader could not take place under more adverse circumstances. The leadership campaign is simply the elevation of the current Tory civil war over Europe to new and greater levels of intensity.

It will exacerbate, not heal, divisions and will further divide the Conservative Party, ending up in an inevitable split. The Tory divisions over Europe are so fierce that there is no longer any chance of reconciliation.

Any new leader's government will not survive longer than the autumn, even if they get that far. The calling of a general election is now unstoppable, though not practical before the summer parliamentary break. The tremendous success of the anti-European Brexit Party was the stand-out feature of the election in Britain, but that should not eclipse the equally successful pro-European Liberal Democrats and Greens. A combination of their respective votes marginally exceeds that of the Brexit Party. So the success of Farage should not be mistaken as a fresh mandate for Brexit.

The return of two Remain MEPs here was a huge achievement, made more remarkable by the fact that it is almost the exact replica of the 2016 referendum vote of 56% for remain.

The loss of the Ulster Unionist seat to Alliance's Naomi Long was a sensational triumph that will traumatise unionism at large. It is reminiscent of her shock defeat of Peter Robinson in East Belfast. The impact of this extraordinary victory should shake the Ulster Unionists to the core and cause them to radically rethink their position. Unfortunately, they are so far gone that they are probably incapable of doing such a rethink.

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Naomi's win will probably make the DUP even more hardline, as it sees unionism under immediate electoral threat. The vote for Alliance was largely a tactical vote by Remain Ulster Unionist voters, who felt that they could not trust the UUP to represent their pro-European interests in Brussels, despite the fact that their likeable candidate Danny Kennedy was an undoubted Remainer.

Hardline pro-Brexit unionist voters switched to the DUP, because they felt the DUP was stronger on Brexit. Either way the UUP was doomed, falling between two stools.

But this will continue to be the new way in local politics unless and until the UUP realises that its natural supporters do not want a DUP-lite party, but rather a real alternative model that has a modern, intelligent and conciliatory approach to addressing politics here. They will continue to vote Alliance, as they perceive Alliance to be that political model.

Meanwhile in the South, Sinn Fein suffered a devastating setback losing 78 council seats, and the jewel in its crown, the European Parliamentary seat in Dublin, which was won by it on the first count in 2014. It cannot recover ground if a general election takes place in the next year. If there was an election tomorrow, it would be down to single figures in Dail Eireann.

While the Green surge in the South was partly responsible, it was only one aspect of its disastrous performance. It has continued since the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent austerity policies of successive governments to present itself as a party of protest, and opposing for the sake of opposition. It squandered its inheritance.

In addition, leader Mary Lou McDonald, who in any other party would have resigned by now, was too aggressive in the Dail and in public to sustain and attract voters.

The party's prized southern project, which was to be in government on both sides of the border at the same time, is now in ruins.

There is little doubt that its departure from the Stormont Executive in 2016 caused some damage to its reputation in Dublin. The southern electorate thought, if it was incapable of being in government in the North, why vote for it in the South?

However, one of the consequences of all this may be a more flexible Sinn Fein, more anxious to get back into government in Stormont. After all, there is nowhere for it to go.

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