Belfast Telegraph

Why rise of the big two signals the end for UUP Taoiseach Enda Kenny may be the Republic's comeback kid but Tom Elliott won't reprise his feat in May. It's between the DUP and Sinn Fein, says Henry McDonald

Tom Elliott must be looking enviously across the border at the 'resurrection election' just gone by. He has seen a party that, back in 2001, suffered historic losses taking power alongside Labour with the largest Dail majority in modern times.

Elliott will observe in Enda Kenny a leader of a centre-Right political movement who only last June faced an internal coup d'etat. Kenny has not so much risen from the political grave as landed his greatest-ever triumph.

Kenny-envy may be one thing however, but emulating the salvage job on his career and that of his party is another. By contrast, the Ulster Unionists look more doomed than they did before the southern general election.

The reason is the main sub-plot of the election: namely the return of Sinn Fein as a major force in southern politics, mostly at the expense of Fianna Fail.

More than trebling their Dail representation will undoubtedly give the party a boost north of the border. Emboldened by a good result in the Republic, Sinn Fein will press home its advantage within northern nationalism.

While it played down its tribal roots for the southern electorate, Sinn Fein will return to form in the Assembly elections and bang the sectarian drum.

The party's central strategy will be to play its most important asset within Northern Ireland - Martin McGuinness. Electing McGuinness as First Minister will attract more nationalist voters who will see his potential elevation as top dog at Stormont as the final sign that nationalists and republicans are living in a society of equals.

None of this, of course, changes the dynamics of partition. Voters and parties were tightly focused on the economy and national survival was on many more minds than national unity.

In spite of what they tell their voters and the loyal base, and regardless of their strength in the Dail and Stormont, Sinn Fein are no closer to a united Ireland than they were when Brian Cowen was still Taoiseach a few weeks ago.

None of this will assuage unionist paranoia - something which has always been more apparent than real. Peter Robinson has already talked about stopping Sinn Fein's all-Ireland agenda in the May Assembly elections.

Perhaps Robinson's remarks were the opening salvo in the DUP's Assembly campaign. By hyping the Sinn Fein threat, maybe Robinson is appealing to all unionist voters to back the main unionist party who can prevent their nightmare scenario coming true. If this is the case, then Robinson too could take a few lessons from Enda Kenny.

During the campaign, Kenny reached out to a swathe of the traditional Fianna Fail electorate; on at least three set-piece Press conferences and television interviews he noted that there were thousands of people who had supported Fianna Fail in the past who were decent, patriotic citizens. Kenny even blatantly asked disgruntled Fianna Fail supporters to "lend us your vote". Which they did. In their thousands.

Robinson would be wise to ask UUP voters who are concerned about the Sinn Fein surge to lend the DUP their votes in May. After all, that has already been happening since the days of David Trimble's dethronement, with UUP voters defecting to the DUP in their droves.

If the current First Minister is successful in deploying this strategy, it could spell the end of the UUP as a serious player.

In the longer term, however, there may be an even greater and profound lesson parties like the DUP and Fine Gael can learn from one another.

Both share something in common of late: the old ideological differences they have had with their old rivals are disappearing.

In the south, the 2011 general election signified the end of civil war politics. The divisions caused by the 1921 Treaty and the creation of two power-blocs that grew out of the civil war are irrelevant to the 21st century.

Meanwhile, the civil war politics of the DUP versus the UUP are equally irrelevant. Not so long ago, the differences between the DUP and UUP were more pronounced. The former was rooted in evangelical Protestantism, more working-class and theocratic.

Today the DUP attracts secular, middle-class unionists while maintaining a dwindling fundamentalist base.

All of this points to one logical conclusion from a unionist viewpoint: the creation of a single unionist party whose principal aim is to save the Union.

Robinson's DUP no longer wants to engineer the human soul; their only concern is to put a spanner in the works of Sinn Fein's all-Ireland agenda.

Similarly, there appears to be no logic to the existence of two rival centre-Right parties who agree on so much when it comes to economic and fiscal policies.

Once upon a time, Fianna Fail's leading lights, such as Bertie Ahern, even pretended that their party was socialist - even while it was cosying up to the toxic nexus that almost bankrupted the Republic. A chastened, post-election Fianna Fail, meanwhile, will spend the first few years of the 31st Dail supporting the Fine Gael-led economic programme to rescue the state from the mess of its own creation.

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