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Are the unionist parties listening to their voters?


The general consensus among media commentators is that it’s been a bad election for unionism.

That results reflect a lack of confidence among unionist voters. Oddly enough, I read the thing entirely differently.

Granted, an election which takes out both unionist leaders on the same night might seem, on the face of it, hard to argue as a unionist gain. Until, that is, you consider who was behind this dual decapitation. The unionist voters themselves.

And what they were firing here weren’t just Sir Reg and Robbo. But a couple of well-aimed warning shots at both parties. Actually it says something — I think — about the confidence of unionist voters that they didn’t hold back from letting rip with both barrels.

First, Sir Reg. Despite the gung ho optimism of party political literature, anyone with any degree of insight into the unionist community would have suspected that the UUP boss and his colleagues were on a hiding to, well, a hiding.

There’s a word for the inability to see that unpopular political liaisons could cost you at the ballot box. And that word is UCUNF.

The most bewildering aspect of the UUP election campaign was how very out of step they appear to be with those they depend upon to elect them.

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But they can’t say they weren’t warned. Not so long ago I was writing about the insanity, inter alia, of losing the party’s one (highly popular) MP even before the election.

Some in the UUP hierarchy may not have liked Lady Sylvia Hermon. But that should have been immaterial. The fact is the punters did. Instead of off-loading her, the UUP hierarchy should have been learning from her.

The shabby way Lady Hermon was seen to be treated did not reflect well on the party either. Neither of course did the ludicrous UCUNF. The UUP has seemed in recent times more concerned about keeping party representatives in a job than about catering for the people who really count — the people who elect them.

True, it has retained enough core support to ensure that it hasn’t entirely glugged down the plug hole. But it is losing votes at both ends — to the DUP and (as the East Belfast result underlines) to moderate Alliance.

Just as importantly it has also been losing the votes of those who sit at home unable to bring themselves to vote for anyone else.

Will a new leader (Basil McCrea perhaps?) change all this?

A new leadership has at least a chance. But it’s important that it’s a complete change. Not the removal of just one man. There were others around Sir Reg ( a decent, likeable man) who also share the blame for what went wrong.

Back at DUP HQ the picture is maybe less challenging. But party chiefs there, too, would be foolish to ignore the warning shot fired in their direction via the defeat of Peter Robinson. It says something about unionist distaste for sleaze and scandal that the man who held the seat for 31 years was left so high and dry.

The party has since rallied around him. But bosses would be kidding themselves if they believed their leader has not been holed below the waterline. And is not a liability. They have at least a bit of time to let him go with some dignity.

Who next for that hot seat? Arlene Foster would seem a safe bet.

The fact is the election hasn’t decapitated unionism. It’s merely pointed up what unionist voters won’t trust or tolerate.

The positive aspect for unionism is that those voters have had the confidence to send that message loud and clear. The question is — will their leaders listen?

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