It didn’t particularly interest anybody, apart from those standing, but the council by-election in Craigavon presented an intriguing case study of the current state of unionism.
What better timing could there have been? The DUP apparently in meltdown, choosing not even to contest the seat. The First Minister standing aside for six weeks, adding to the sense of crisis. Sir Reg Empey struggling with the humiliation of being sidelined in the Executive — his protests only fuelling unionist disquiet at the direction the whole process was taking over policing and justice.
Step forward, surely, the new guardians of the unionist soul, the TUV? After all, it was their seat. Even though the outgoing councillor, Mark Russell, had been elected on a DUP ticket, the charisma of Jim Allister had been irresistible and he’d defected to the TUV.
The conditions couldn’t have been more congenial to the realignment of the unionist bloc that Allister has been predicting since the Euro elections last year.
He was right. The TUV was realigned all the way out of its seat.
The UUP won by a considerable margin. Fair enough, it was a bad day, which may have contributed to the low 25% turnout. But would a squall of rain deter the hardy pioneers of New/Old Unionism? I don’t think so. It falls as much on the soft-bellied comfortable compromisers as on the staunch hard-liners. But it was the woolly unionists — 2,494 of them — who braved the elements while only 752 turned out for the TUV. It was a catastrophic defeat.
The TUV are meant to be doing two things. First, soaking up disaffected voters from the DUP, all those supposedly sickened by Ian Paisley’s Chuckle Brothers routine with Martin McGuinness.
Second, galvanising a unionist electorate tired of the grey men of the UUP — which led them down the road to compromise in the first place — and forming a new single unionist force.
It failed on both fronts. And that will have come as a great comfort to both Empey and Robinson.
Had the TUV romped home in Craigavon, it would have been a serious warning of what would be likely to happen at the Westminster elections in a few months time. And it would be a signal too of the Executive’s fate should a collapse at Stormont trigger an Assembly poll.
It doesn’t seem that many people, certainly in the media, have much time to spend on the small details of unionist politics. Perhaps this isn’t surprising when the “small details” of nationalist politics can leave people maimed or dead. But unionist opinion is just as powerful a threat to “the process” as any dissident activity. A growing disillusionment with the direction of the Executive and the DUP’s supposed kowtowing to Sinn Fein has been a factor among Protestants for some time.
The Euro elections were a slap in the teeth to the DUP and there wasn’t much positive could be predicted from them about the future prospects of the UUP.
Now, maybe a small contest in mid-Ulster in mid-winter isn’t the most accurate measure of a shift in unionist thinking, but it’s as good a one as we have.
There’s an assumption in the media that what you’re meant to do when faced with a dissident attack is stand shoulder to shoulder and press on with the Executive.
Many unionists think differently. And there might have been an expectation that in an area of dissident activity, where Constable Stephen Carroll was murdered, voters would rush to register a big anti-Executive, anti-Robinson, anti-Deal result.
For that’s what a vote for the TUV is. And the decent turnout for the UUP’s fresh-faced Jo-Anne Dobson certainly isn’t that.
Sir Reg may be over-egging the pudding to suggest her election “is the clearest possible evidence that the UUP is back in business”, but it is certainly proof that unionists are not deserting the old orthodoxies.
The Deal is the Deal. The choice is between the UUP and the DUP.
Some would argue that there is no real difference any more. Nothing separates the two unionist parties, other than a few old feuds and habit. It’s not quite the new bloc Jim Allister wanted. But it’s a bloc nonetheless.