Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Sorry, Naomi, the truth is that Alliance gains were at expense of the centre ground... the two main blocs remain defiantly Orange and Green

 

Naomi Long with fellow Alliance members Peter Reynolds, Sian O’Neill, Ross McMullan and Nuala McAllister at the election count
Naomi Long with fellow Alliance members Peter Reynolds, Sian O’Neill, Ross McMullan and Nuala McAllister at the election count
Alison Bennington
Naomi Long with fellow Alliance members Peter Reynolds, Sian O’Neill, Ross McMullan and Nuala McAllister at the election count and (below from left), Barry McElduff, Gary Donnelly and Alison Bennington
Barry McElduff

By Eilis O’Hanlon

The time that politicians need to spend in the wilderness after disgracing themselves is getting shorter all the time.

Sinn Fein's Barry McElduff only resigned as MP for West Tyrone in January of last year after being widely accused of mocking the victims of the Kingsmill massacre, but already he's back, having won a seat on Fermanagh and Omagh District Council in last week's local elections.

Either Sinn Fein supporters felt that McElduff had suffered enough by "taking a hit that maybe I didn't deserve to take", as he himself claimed recently, or they didn't think he'd done anything wrong in the first place.

Whatever the reason, having put on a minimal show of remorse, the Sinn Fein vote didn't suffer for standing by him.

Former dissident republican spokesman and Real IRA prisoner Gary Donnelly even topped the poll in the Moor electoral area of Derry, where Lyra McKee was recently murdered. That's hardly the new beginning for which so many desperately longed after the young journalist's death.

Candlelit vigils are all very well, but they're not as potent a symbol of hearts and minds as actual votes.

Despite some excited talk about how the mould was being broken as the painfully slow counting continued, the DUP and Sinn Fein ended up with almost exactly the same percentage of first preference votes that they won in the 2014 council elections. The only difference is that they switched first and second positions.

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Arlene Foster's party did lose eight seats, and Sinn Fein, like the Grand Old Duke of York, is "neither up nor down", thanks perhaps to the arrival of the new pro-life, pro-Irish unity Aontu, led by the party's former TD Peadar Toibin, which took 1.1% of first preferences. Without competition from Aontu, SF's vote might well have gone up, allowing it to maintain first place in the sectarian dog fight.

Still, for all the multiple challenges from smaller parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein actually recorded a slight increase in support between them this time round.

Local elections are a chance to register a protest vote without too much disruption to wider political or constitutional issues.

That's unfortunate for local councillors, who, despite all their hard work on behalf of communities, often bear the brunt for larger party decisions which have nothing to do with them; but canvassers who said that they were picking up a "plague on both their houses" mood on the doorsteps, similar to the one which saw the Tories and Labour in England suffer significant losses, turned out to be somewhat optimistic.

Arlene Foster was obviously wary of that possibility, and spent the campaign urging voters to resist the temptation to use the election as a protest.

Sinn Fein spent its campaign talking up the possibility of a border poll, which, considering the limited powers of councils in Northern Ireland, seemed surreal.

Both clearly used the elections to shore up support ahead of newly reconvened talks.

They might not have broken through the psychologically important 50% barrier; but their dominance shows less sign of weakening than might have been imagined from some early news reports, which excitedly painted Alliance as the new knights in shining armour for Northern Ireland.

To be fair, the party did spectacularly well by its own lights, with a vote share up from 6.7% in 2014 to 11.5% now, a stunning vindication for leader Naomi Long, who has not been without her critics. For a time during the count, Alliance candidates seemed to be topping the poll in all directions, including every district electoral area in Lisburn and Castlereagh.

The Greens did well too, with first time candidate Aine Grogan coming out top in Botanic, and the party overall more than doubled its support in first preference votes.

People Before Profit also made welcome inroads from the left, not least in the shape of veteran anti-sectarian socialist campaigner Eamonn McCann.

But without wanting to be a party pooper, the unfortunate truth remains that Alliance, the Greens and independents succeeded at the expense of others in the centre, notably the Ulster Unionists and SDLP, rather than taking votes from the two main parties.

The SDLP was down 1.6% on 2014, and lost a third of its seats. Its share of the vote has now fallen at every local election since 1993.

Ulster Unionists' vote share has been dropping since 1985, and it was down another 2% this time round. There are now just two UUP councillors in all of Belfast.

It's not hard to understand why liberal unionists, nervous of Brexit and at odds with the social conservatism of the traditional pro-Union parties on issues such as same sex marriage, would gravitate towards Alliance.

As for nationalists, it could be that the SDLP's arrangement with Fianna Fail has made some voters in that community uncomfortable enough to desert the party this time round.

It should also be remembered that the 1.8% of votes won by NI21 last time round were up for grabs now that the short-lived "cross-community party" is no more. They were always most likely to go to Alliance.

But while the Greens' Aine Grogan put her own party's success down to voters being "fed up with old style politics", it's hard to paint all this as a sea change in Northern Irish politics, at least not yet. It's more of a re-alignment of the centre ground. An encouraging one, but whether it marks a permanent shift is the great unknown.

The road ahead depends on whether that new centre of Alliance and Greens and others can expand out and eat into the old traditional block votes.

Westminster and Assembly elections still show few signs of crumbling to an onslaught from any such new politics, and if anything is to change radically, then that's where it needs to happen, not just in local councils.

In the absence of such a breakthrough, one must take hope from small chinks of light, such as the election of the DUP's first openly gay candidate in Alison Bennington in Antrim and Newtonabbey.

Assembly member Jim Wells claimed only a couple of weeks ago that "many, many" members of the DUP were disgusted by her candidacy, but she got more than a thousand votes and was elected on the sixth count.

It's a timely reminder that people are ahead of the politicians on these issues, as studies consistently show.

Individual candidates can't fix everything at once, but the shift in attitudes which their very presence on the electoral scene represents is irreversible, and can't fail to have a positive. long-term influence on Northern Irish politics.

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