Nelson McCausland: Why being the largest unionist party puts huge responsibility on the DUP to help defend the Union
Collapse of the UUP and smaller unionist parties leaves Arlene Foster to counter Sinn Fein, says Nelson McCausland
After the recent local government elections, political parties in Northern Ireland are entering a period of negotiations and also preparing for a European election. A lot of their energies will, therefore, be directed towards these immediate priorities. However, I am sure they will also be taking time to reflect on the results of the elections.
A lot of the public comment has been around the DUP performing well, as both the largest unionist party and the largest party.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein performed well as the largest nationalist party, in spite of setbacks in Londonderry, and there was a growth in support for some other parties, especially the Alliance Party.
Sinn Fein must have hoped to do better, but those hopes were not realised. Nevertheless, they do seem to have used the election to promote high-calibre councillors.
New councillors John Finucane in Belfast and Rosie Kinnear in Newtownabbey are both solicitors, with the latter, according to her website, “representing families who had a loved one murdered by the British Army and state agents”.
She is also an Irish language enthusiast and activist and will undoubtedly be using her legal and cultural skills to promote Sinn Fein’s cultural agenda within the council.
In Belfast, the DUP increased its representation from 13 to 15, while Sinn Fein dropped from 19 seats to 18, but at the same time the UUP is clearly in terminal decline.
Its representation in the city dropped from seven seats to two, with both seats in east Belfast and with no councillors at all in north, west, or south Belfast
That reinforces the predicament of the UUP, which has no MP in the city and only one MLA.
When local government was reorganised in 1973, the UUP held 25 out of 51 council seats in the city and today it is down to just two out of 60, with the loss of veteran councillors such as Chris McGimpsey and Davy Browne.
UUP politicians have stressed that, across Northern Ireland, their party has retained “75 seats and representation in every council”.
But, when their representation in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, is down to just two councillors, it is clear that the decline of the UUP is continuing.
Meanwhile, the smaller unionist parties — TUV, PUP and Ukip — fared poorly, with the TUV dropping from 13 seats to just six and Ukip losing all three seats that it had held previously.
The loss of more than half its seats by the TUV is especially significant and it is left with just five seats across Ballymena, Bannside and Braid and one in Comber. There is not a single TUV councillor in any other part of the province.
The DUP has had a difficult time over the last few years. Some of its problems have been self-inflicted, but it has also had to endure a daily onslaught from the social liberals and the EU Remainers.
After the 2017 General Election, the DUP gained a significant influence at Westminster, but that has come at a price.
Against that background, the ability of the DUP to hold its vote — indeed, the ability to achieve a marginal increase on 2014 — is, therefore, all the more impressive.
Overall, the decline in the UUP and the growth of the DUP as the largest party in Northern Ireland means that there is a great responsibility resting on the shoulders of the DUP, especially its leadership. The future and direction of the DUP are, therefore, more important for unionism and the Union than ever before. They are not merely important for the party; they are vitally important for the future of unionism.
So, in spite of the immediate priorities, it is time for the DUP to review and reflect on the way forward.
On that basis and in addition to developing and refining practical polices for health, education, housing and the economy, I would suggest five areas that deserve careful consideration.
Those are to advocate for the Union, to develop a broad unionist strategy, to build the party into a movement, to consolidate and grow the unionist vote and to counter the broad republican strategy.
Being the largest unionist party places a great responsibility on the DUP.