Belfast Telegraph

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Suzanne Breen: Little earthquakes are a sign of political change across Northern Ireland - UUP could be finished in EU poll

Politics here has been shaken up... as a forerunner to Euro elections, the LE19 results suggest third seat wide open

All smiles at the count in the Foyle Arena for People Before Profit's Eamonn McCann as he is elected to Derry City and Strabane District Council. Picture Martin McKeown.
All smiles at the count in the Foyle Arena for People Before Profit's Eamonn McCann as he is elected to Derry City and Strabane District Council. Picture Martin McKeown.
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Bring it on. The EU election in a fortnight promises to be one heck of a contest.

Usually it’s entirely predictable. A Sinn Fein, DUP and Ulster Unionist MEP returned. The first two are still nailed on, but there will be one almighty tussle for that third seat.

Even before our council election, I reckoned it was too close to call. And that feeling has intensified following the local government results.

For a full breakdown visit our Election hub and check out the results 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

Martina Anderson and Diane Dodds are dead certs, but Naomi Long, Danny Kennedy, Colum Eastwood, or even Jim Allister could be completing the line-up.

We’ve grown too used to saying nothing ever changes in Northern Ireland. Last Thursday it did. It wasn’t an upheaval of seismic proportions, but there were little earthquakes all over the place.

In the Ormiston District Electoral Area (DEA) of East Belfast, a despicable leaflet linking the Alliance Party to a paramilitary organisation published by sitting UUP councillors Jim Rodgers and Peter Johnston spectacularly backfired.

Mr Rodgers, who traditionally tops the poll, did not do so. Three Alliance and a Green candidate were elected ahead of him while Mr Johnston lost his seat.

Distributing such scurrilous literature in an area where Alliance’s offices have been attacked, and its representatives have received death threats and been forced from their homes, was outrageous.

Ironically, the veteran UUP man turned out to be Alliance’s greatest asset by galvanising its supporters and soft unionists in their droves.

I’d suspect that at his party headquarters, Mr Rodgers was cursed to high heaven. But it would be wrong to lay the blame for the UUP’s woes solely at his door.

The malaise goes much deeper than that. Former party leader Mike Nesbitt tried to drag the Ulster Unionists into the 21st century, but too many in its ranks resisted.

They felt Mike was too metropolitan, not an Orangeman, not Christian enough, not even a proper unionist.

There is no doubt that traditional UUP supporters were stretched by his leadership. But the problem now is that the party is trying to be all things to all men and women.

It has no clear identity. Many liberal and Remain voters deserted it for Alliance.

Some of a conservative slant have switched to the DUP.

The blame can’t all be placed on Robin Swann’s shoulders. He is one of the most decent and straight-talking people in politics here. It wouldn’t matter who is UUP leader, they have a near impossible tightrope to walk.

In his response to the council election results, Mr Swann noted Alliance’s success and said his party would listen to what the electorate was saying.

He knows that he has to claw back as many votes as possible for Danny Kennedy on May 23. Because no matter how grim it looks now, it would surely finish the party if the EU seat was lost.

The UUP candidate is a safe pair of hands. Party supporters who maybe stayed at home will now be incentivised to vote for him in the election. 

The transfers of TUV leader Jim Allister saw Jim Nicholson elected last time and the same may work again for his successor. But it is still all to play for.

Mr Allister may fancy his own chances as he has a far wider appeal than his party does in council elections. An EU poll with head-to-head TV debates plays to his strengths and allows him to shine.

A strong case can be made for the chances of both Colum Eastwood and Naomi Long. With controversy about the SDLP’s link up with Fianna Fail, this wasn’t the easiest election for the party.

In the circumstances, its vote held up remarkably well, and it even managed gains in some areas, reversing years of decline.

Paul McCusker’s performance in Oldpark was breathtaking, trebling Nichola Mallon’s 2014 vote — the SDLP needs more candidates like him.

In Belfast, there were big wins for the Green Party and People Before Profit.

The latter was flying high in the 2016 Assembly election with Gerry Carroll topping the poll in West Belfast and Eamonn McCann elected in Foyle.

Sinn Fein’s collapse of Stormont won back many of its voters who had drifted away in urban areas. Brexit also worked against the strongly anti-EU People Before Profit. Its rise appeared to have been successfully thwarted.

But as welfare cuts have started to bite in working-class urban areas, Sinn Fein support has been put under increasing pressure.

It will be concerned that rather than a solo People Before Profit councillor in Belfast, there’s now a trio of them. Fiona Ferguson in particular is a powerhouse who will take City Hall by storm.

The other notable tremors were provided by unionist candidates. Alison Bennington who became the DUP’s first  ‘openly gay’ councillor.

The phrase itself jars — are other candidates ‘openly heterosexual’? Hopefully, such labels will soon be irrelevant.

Councillor Tom Smith signed his political death warrant in the DUP by voting to light up Ards Town Hall in rainbow colours for Pride day. He then decided, at the eleventh hour, to seek election as an independent after being deselected by his party.

He took the last seat on Friday night. We were truly blessed with drama at #LE19. We may well revert back to straight sectarian politics, but it’s still a great scene-setter for the battle for Brussels.

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