I was fortunate enough to appear on UTV’s The Issue programme last Thursday – initially to talk about elections but then racism got in the way. Here is what so would have said about the former…
As ever, the old media missed it, but the story of the recent Northern Ireland elections was the rise of hard-line Unionism – at local level, TUV/UKIP/PUP polled over 50,000 first preference votes (the same as Alliance and NI21 combined); at European level, they polled nearly 100,000 (nearly double Alliance plus NI21). For all the wild coverage of the new progressive centre ground, what the disenchanted Unionist non-voter was looking for was a harder line, not a softer one.
For all that, this may be a one-off. At a Westminister election where only X-votes count, the temptation will be for those voters to return to the DUP or the joint Unionist candidate; at a Stormont election where the largest party gets the First Minister, the temptation will be to go with the largest Unionist party (the DUP) to make sure it comes out on top.
What will not be a one-off, I suspect, are the two clear “wedges” now identifiable among the Northern Irish electorate.
The first is between Progressives (my term) and Unionists. In the past, the Alliance Party has consistently scored much lower at “higher-level” elections (such as European) than “lower-level” (such as Council), but this year that was turned on its head when Anna Lo’s 7.1% beat the party’s local election score of 6.7%. Alliance and other Progressive voters opted not to lend their vote to the UUP, as some on the more pro-Union end of that spectrum had in the past, thus ensuring by far the worst ever Ulster Unionist European Election result (over three points worse than ever before) and only 20% of their transfers (where in the past it would have been 40-50%). The ire worked both ways, however. In heavily Unionist towns such as Carrickfergus and Ballyclare the Alliance Party came close to wipe-out at local level as Unionists turned out en masse and transferred heavily to other Unionist candidates while refusing resolutely to transfer to Alliance – and at European level, Jim Nicholson’s low transfer from Alliance was compensated for by a high transfer from UKIP and TUV (which was even more useful given the high Unionist turnout).
The second is between the two Nationalist parties. At the European election, more Sinn Fein voters plumped (i.e. voted 1-Anderson only) than gave the SDLP a second preference. Even of those (barely half) who did transfer, a significant minority went elsewhere. At local council level, this was on occasions even more marked – in Balmoral, fully 20% of Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir’s surplus went to the Alliance Party candidates. It has long been the case that SDLP transfers tend to favour Alliance over Sinn Fein, but if anything this trend also continued.
Who gains from the first wedge is unclear. Unionists will be delighted by their high turnout, and by exceeding half the vote at the European Election (which they didn’t last time). However, demographics mean that relying solely on those who identify as “Unionist” will soon be a minority pursuit. The Alliance Party will be delighted that their “core vote” in fact appears to be 7% (only a decade on from polling half of that), yet will be concerned that their gradual nibbling of the “soft Unionist” vote seems to have stalled absolutely.
The second wedge has an obvious loser – the SDLP. It now cannot rely on transfers from Sinn Fein at all; on the other side, it now faces a serious challenge from an Alliance Party which has been (deliberately or otherwise) more open about what would be perceived by many as a “Nationalist” tinge. This is something of a trap – to rise to the Alliance challenge, the SDLP instinctively will feel it has to be more overtly Nationalist (or to point to Alliance’s apparent “unionism”); yet this actually puts off its own softer voters, particularly when confronted with an obviously likeable Alliance candidate such as Anna Lo.
The addition of the loss of control of Derry’s Guildhall (in fact made inevitable by the new Council boundaries) will be a huge psychological blow to the party of Hume. In the end, it is not at all clear who the winner of the election in Northern Ireland was – but the loser was clearly the SDLP.