Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Alliance going from strength to strength at expense of UUP

Naomi Long
Naomi Long

Editor's Viewpoint

The EU election is over, the votes are counted and the results are in. Once again the people have spoken.

For an election which was unexpected in the UK and which barely stirred the imagination, the European poll produced a fascinating array of possibilities.

After the surge by the Alliance Party in the local government elections, there were great expectations for its leader, Naomi Long, and she duly delivered in style.

She hugely increased the Alliance vote from the last EU election, and she became the third local MEP, alongside the DUP's Diane Dodds and Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson.

In doing so Naomi Long won more votes than the others - she had a total of 170,370 compared to 155,422 for Diane Dodds and 152,436 for Martina Anderson. It is also worth noting that all three of Northern Ireland's MEPs are women.

Alliance's strong performance, the second in a month, seems to have resulted from a deliberate Sinn Fein tactic to advise their supporters to vote strategically for Naomi Long who is a Remainer.

In doing so Sinn Fein were also keen to steer first preference votes away from their political rival Colum Eastwood of the SDLP.

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Mrs Long most certainly received support from Remainer unionists who did not find a home in the Brexit-backing DUP and UUP.

While even Sinn Fein saw their vote share drop by 3.3% compared to the 2014 election, the biggest losers were undoubtedly the UUP.

Their candidate Danny Kennedy, by all accounts a decent individual, paid the ultimate price for Robin Swann's lacklustre and directionless leadership over Brexit which fooled no-one.

Many argue that trying to mimic the DUP is the wrong policy, and Mr Kennedy, who was previously a Remainer, never looked comfortable trying to sell the UUP's clouded support for Brexit.

The fact that the UUP were comprehensively out-polled by the TUV's Jim Allister also underlines the paucity of their political ideas as much as Allister's commitment to unswerving, perhaps even doctrinal, purity.

Diane Dodds closed the gap with Sinn Fein, even though the DUP were runners-up to the republicans in the European elections of 2009 and 2014. Mrs Dodds can take some personal pleasure in being the first to reach the quota this time.

The ultimate significance of European elections, as with the local government elections earlier, is in providing an indication of what results a Stormont or Westminster election might produce, though all have their different characteristics. Voting patterns are not necessarily the same in a General Election.

Nevertheless, the Alliance Party have been given another big electoral bounce, and they have been in the enviable position where proportional representation enables them to pick up tactical transfers from divergent, if not mutually exclusive, quarters.

The next Assembly elections, if they ever take place, will determine whether these European elections represented a high-water mark for Alliance, or whether they can extend their appeal still further.

The more hidebound Westminster process, which brings success on a first-past-the-post basis, may not suit Alliance so well, but recent developments in the UK have shown that in the world of modern politics, anything can happen.

In the meantime, the Alliance can take credit for their historic achievement, and the election of two Remain MEPs from Northern Ireland shows that the DUP does not speak on Brexit for the majority of people here.

That message should be heard loud and clear in London and elsewhere.

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