Alex Kane: Why demonising the Alliance Party as Sinn Fein fellow travellers backfired on DUP
More than 134,000 people voted for the centrist party, which is increasingly seen as unionism's nemesis, writes Alex Kane
Up until the early hours of December 13, North Belfast had always been held by a unionist MP. This time, though, demographics and a pact between the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Greens saw it fall to John Finucane of Sinn Fein. Mind you, the seat has been finely balanced for some time and it seemed inevitable that it would change from unionist to nationalist fairly soon.
Up until the early hours of December 13, North Down had always been held by a unionist MP. Indeed, every one of those MPs has either belonged to, or been a former member of, the Ulster Unionist Party.
This time, though, the seat was won by Alliance's Stephen Farry.
Us-and-them demographics played no part (even though neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein contested this time), because the combined nationalist vote is less than 4%.
No nationalist MLA has ever been elected for North Down and even the Ards and North Down Council has only one nationalist councillor (the SDLP's Joe Boyle) out of 40.
The DUP had been confident of winning the seat; Alex Easton having trailed Lady Hermon by just 1,208 votes in 2017. Yet Farry roared to victory with an increase of almost 36% in vote share (taking him up to 45%).
Easton might have nudged ahead if the UUP's Alan Chambers hadn't won almost 5,000 votes, leading some unionists and loyalists to argue that there would need to be a pact to win back the seat.
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That strikes me as an extraordinary admission, because it suggests that North Down, one of the former jewels in unionism's electoral crown, now requires a unionist pact to keep it in unionist hands.
In spite of the efforts of some to portray Farry as part of a pan-nationalist front and describing Alliance as "useful idiots" for Sinn Fein, 18,358 people voted for him.
So, either they didn't buy the pan-nationalist line (the most likely explanation), or they didn't actually care one way or the other.
Or maybe they preferred Alliance to what was on offer from the DUP or UUP?
Let's look at some facts. In 12 out of the 16 seats they contested, the UUP came behind Alliance. Indeed, in East Antrim, UUP leader Steve Aiken was almost 5,000 votes behind the Alliance candidate.
In nine of the strongest unionist constituencies Alliance averaged a 10% increase, including Lagan Valley (+17.7), Strangford (+14), East Antrim (+12.68) and South Antrim (+11.64). In East Belfast, Naomi Long slashed Gavin Robinson's majority from over 8,000 to 1,819. And the win in North Down proves that Alliance can win big seats without Long as the candidate.
On these figures, Alliance is looking at potential Assembly gains in East Antrim, Lagan Valley, North Down, East Londonderry, North Antrim, South Down and outside chances in Upper Bann and West Tyrone.
"An increase of at least six would be a reasonable target/assumption," according to one of the party's most experienced number-crunchers.
Many of those seats are presently held by unionists and it is the UUP which is the most vulnerable.
The present unionist/non-unionist balance in the Assembly is 40/50 and likely to shift further away from unionist if Alliance keeps winning.
Here's something that some unionist/loyalist strategists need to get into their heads. Increasing numbers of people (134,115 last Thursday), in largely unionist constituencies, are voting Alliance. That, by the way, is 40,000 more than voted for the UUP.
Those increasing numbers include tens of thousands of people who are from a unionist/pro-Union background and yet they don't seem comfortable in voting for parties with unionist in the title.
It doesn't mean they are pro-Irish unity, but it does suggest that what they're hearing from unionist parties isn't resonating with them.
That matters. It matters very much. At some point fairly soon there will probably be a border poll and a choice will have to be made between Irish unity and remaining in the UK.
The pro-Union case will be led by the unionist parties, probably in some sort of campaign coalition.
But if tens of thousands of people from a pro-Union background don't seem to like the message from unionist parties (and those numbers may grow), isn't there a danger that they may not be influenced positively by them during a border poll?
I've said it before, but it bears repetition: demonising the Alliance Party doesn't work for unionism.
Look what happened at the Euro election and council elections a few months ago. Look what happened last Thursday. Consider what could happen if there is an Assembly election in a few weeks time.
Yes, I know that Sinn Fein had a bad day, too, but that had nothing to do with an anti-Sinn Fein campaign run by unionism.
Sinn Fein has serious problems of its own, north and south of the border, and may have more to come in the pending Irish election next spring.
There is one simple question to ask: why do so many people who formerly voted for a unionist party (and evidence from Thursday suggests that a small, yet significant, number of DUP voters have just done the same thing) now vote Alliance?
And here's a second question: why do those numbers increase the more some unionists/loyalists attack Alliance?
And maybe a third question: what is the point of attacking a party which is broadly neutral on the Union, yet whose supporters and voters could prove crucial in the event of a border poll?
Alliance has now beaten the UUP and SDLP in two elections this year and makes a fair claim to be recognised as the third, rather than fifth, party here.
It was less than 50,000 votes behind Sinn Fein. It seems set, in the event of an early Assembly election, to increase its seat tally to 16. That's why neither the DUP nor UUP relishes that election.
Who would have thought that the electoral threat from Alliance would have spooked unionism so much?
I don't see that threat lessening any time soon; which means that unionism is going to have to find a coherent strategy for responding to Alliance if it wants to stop the ongoing drift of small "u" unionists to it.