Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Outcome looks grim for UUP, but DUP's vote share rose... and the centre ground really does exist

So the centre ground really does exist. Just when we were thinking that the non-unionist, non-nationalist elector was a creature found only in our university studies of public opinion, out come Alliance and Green supporters.
So the centre ground really does exist. Just when we were thinking that the non-unionist, non-nationalist elector was a creature found only in our university studies of public opinion, out come Alliance and Green supporters.
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

So the centre ground really does exist. Just when we were thinking that the non-unionist, non-nationalist elector was a creature found only in our university studies of public opinion, out come Alliance and Green supporters.

Successive surveys show that those not adopting unionist or nationalist labels are the largest single category on the electoral register, approaching 40% in some findings. It's just that such folk invariably found themselves washing their hair from 7am to 10pm every polling day. This time, with Alliance and Green both producing some jaw-dropping poll topping, things look different.

Visit our Election hub and check out the results as they come in from each council: Antrim and Newtownabbey --- Ards and North Down --- Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon --- Belfast --- Causeway Coast and Glens --- Derry and Strabane --- Fermanagh and Omagh --- Lisburn and Castlereagh --- Mid and East Antrim --- Mid Ulster --- Newry, Mourne and Down

Given that it's only 7pm on Friday evening filing this, much could yet change.

Drawing conclusions in the early stage of a Northern Ireland election count is a guaranteed method of ending an academic career in politics.

Final scores may indicate scant change in the party pecking order. DUP 1, Sinn Fein 2 and the rest trailing, as usual. The outcome looks grim - again - for the UUP, unless late transfers help.

This was a contest in which the party simply had to do well. Local government was the key for a UUP removed from Westminster and redundant in the Assembly.

The UUP trailed the DUP by a whopping 26% in the last general election and 15% in the 2017 Assembly battle.

With the UUP only trailing the DUP by 7% in the 2014 local election, a council contest was the big hope for Robin Swann's party. The UUP managed to get a very respectable 76% (88 of 116) of its candidates elected in 2014.

This local election was the first standalone local contest for more than two decades.

No worries about letting in a Sinn Fein First Minster. No confusions over pan-unionist pacts. No 'Vote Mike, Get Colum' cross-community confusions.

The manifesto was thoughtful, with priorities listed for each council area listed.

There have been worse ideas than the key plan to split rates into Assembly and council precepts to ensure fair funding for each area.

Apart from a kerfuffle attacking Alliance's supposed pan-nationalism in Belfast, the messages seemed coherent.

So the UUP entered the 2019 battle with hope.

A pre-election RHI report might have helped. Otherwise, though, it was a case of, if not now for a breakthrough, when, ever? The question remains unanswered. As the former DUP special adviser, Tim Cairns, asked on The View last Thursday, "how many resurrections is the UUP going to have?" Each contest has been heralded as a revival which, apart from gaining of two soon-to-be-lost Westminster seats in 2015, palpably failed to materialise.

Arlene Foster spotted the possible danger. The DUP leader cautioned the unionist electorate against treating this as a free hit election, in which unionists could go walkabout.

The risk of a border poll if Sinn Fein became the largest party was talked up, notwithstanding that the odds of Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, calling one anytime soon approximate to those of Sammy Wilson defecting to Alliance.

The UUP desperately needs to retain its European Parliament seat later this month.

Many unionists question the purpose of two unionist parties with little - whatever the rhetoric - to distinguish them. Robust unionists will vote DUP. Moderate, 'soft U' types can (and did on Thursday) back Alliance. What is the UUP niche? There is little radical chic to attract younger voters.

The party operates in a narrow marketplace.

Yet the UUP leader, Robin Swann, is understandably committed to keeping the show on the road.

His members don't like the DUP and an overwhelming majority oppose merger.

Swann has plenty of members and commands lots of loyalty. But is the party's purpose sufficiently clear? Meanwhile, the DUP's vote share rose - so much for a negative Brexit effect - and the election of openly gay (an archaic term) Alison Bennington goes a little way to challenging UUP criticisms of the DUP's social conservatism. The DUP's top-down selection procedures mean that it was aware of the change her candidature represented.

It meant further marginalisation of the Free Presbyterian tendencies which many voters - formerly inclined to back the UUP - found off-putting.

Bennington's election does not mean DUP policy change on same-sex marriage. A restoration of the Assembly and the incapacity of the DUP to solo run on petitions of concern might however mean legislative change.

Similar difficulties of relevance apply to the SDLP - also not dead and the repository of much loyalty. Historical distinction between nationalist parties does not comprise an electoral case.

The controversial 'partnership' between Colum Eastwood's party and Fianna Fail set a few SDLP members ablaze but precious few electors.

The good news for the UUP and SDLP is that they both start the European Parliament elections in 19 days nearly 40,000 votes ahead of resurgent Alliance.

It's a contest where the battle for the bronze medal really will matter.

Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of recent books on The Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party (both Oxford University Press)

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