Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: Why the DUP will need to come up with a long-term vision after a tough election

The main unionist party must analyse what went wrong and then take firm action, argues Nelson McCausland

Nigel Dodds after losing his seat in North Belfast
Nigel Dodds after losing his seat in North Belfast
Nelson McCausland

Nelson McCausland

Some political parties have emerged from the general election rather bruised and some have taken a full-scale battering.

The Labour Party is certainly bruised and battered after its worst election result since 1935. Jeremy Corbyn is in a state of denial about his culpability for a disastrous defeat but he is already exiting stage left.

Labour is looking for a new leader but it will take more than a change of leader to turn things round and some prominent members have already provided useful analysis.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats and their leader were utterly humiliated. A bullish Jo Swinson had presented herself as a potential prime minister but her platform of overturning the Brexit referendum and pursuing a radical transgender programme was roundly rejected.

Meanwhile here in Northern Ireland several parties are licking their wounds. The SDLP will be happy to have picked up two seats but there is no sign of any recovery from the Ulster Unionist Party. It seems to be in a state of inexorable decline which may even accelerate under the current cack-handed leadership.

The main focus, however, has been on the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein and both have suffered setbacks.

The biggest local loser was Sinn Fein, whose vote share was down by 6.7%. That comes after a series of bad elections in the Irish Republic and against a background of internal unease. The party's success in North Belfast was matched by a disastrous result in Foyle and overall it was not a good election for them.

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Two Sinn Fein MLAs have already resigned including veteran entrepreneur Mairtin O Muilleoir who stood aside in the South Belfast constituency. This may be related to the fact that he is looking for an investor or a buyer for his newspaper group or perhaps to the forthcoming RHI report. Meanwhile Megan Fearon has also stepped down in Newry and Armagh where Mickey Brady's vote dropped by 8% but these resignations were probably planned before the election.

Nevertheless the old Stalinist control in Sinn Fein is slowly eroding and it was significant that John O'Dowd picked up one third of the votes when he stood against Michelle O'Neill in the recent contest for deputy leader.

Maeve McLaughlin, a former Sinn Fein MLA in Foyle, said the loss of Foyle to the SDLP was a "major body blow". She also said that the party must take action to deal with it. "Sinn Fein locally needs to not only listen, not only reflect, but take action in relation to the mood that exists in the city. It's time for tough conversations and I do believe that includes all of the key issues, all of the key personnel and all of the key policy directions locally. We need to put everything on the table."

You rarely hear such plain speaking in public from a Sinn Fein member. Her focus was on Londonderry but her call for analysis and action may well resonate with Sinn Fein members in West Belfast, where the vote dropped by almost 13%.

The DUP is still the largest party in Northern Ireland and the primary voice and vehicle for unionism but its vote share was down by 5.4% and whilst the figure varied from constituency to constituency the drop in vote share must be a cause for concern. The loss of Nigel Dodds in North Belfast was a particularly bitter blow but the vote share dropped in every constituency.

How then will the DUP respond and how will unionism respond? This is not the time for knee-jerk reactions but rather for forensic analysis and firm action.

Too often organisations undertake the analysis but then fail to follow through with the action. Party members are talking amongst themselves about what they feel should be done and some of those conversations have been very thoughtful and constructive. The energy and insights of those conversations need to be harnessed as part of the analysis and there is urgency about that.

Unionism is often short-term in its thinking but that is simply not good enough, especially when republicans still think in terms of a 'long war'. Unionism needs a long-term vision and a long-term strategy and that places a heavy responsibility on the DUP, a responsibility that comes with being the largest party in Northern Ireland.

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