Derek Mooney writes:
Some thoughts on the quite amazing results in last Thursday’s NI Assembly election.
1. Brexit a huge motivating factor. It drove up turnout, esp among nationalists who didn’t vote at the May 2016 Assembly election, but who did vote remain at the Brexit Referendum.
2. Many of this new voting cohort voted SF, not because of any support for Michelle O’Neill or Gerry Adams, but because they saw voting SF as the best way of asserting their anti Brexit and anti Arlene Foster position. While the SDLP may closer mirror their actual anti Brexit position, it simply was neither strong nor viable enough an option to make their protest register.
3. This election was different in that the tradition (up to now) was for NI elections to be conducted in three individual silos:
Silo One – the biggest of the three silos is the unionist one with the DUP and UUP playing a zero sum game – when the UUP loses the DUP gains. This time both lost – with disgruntled DUP supporters staying at home, unhappy at Arlene’s financial irresponsibility on RHI, Nama, RedSky etc.
Some UUP voters felt unsure what Mike Nesbitt’s UUP stood for – some defected to the more secure DUP or went to the more clearly moderate Alliance. This decline in both unionist parties put seats in play that have not been up for grabs in years and the SDLP took at least two of them – on UUP transfers at that!
The instinctive Unionist response to this will be to regroup and perhaps even attempt to coalesce. Perhaps this will happen via a formal DUP/UUP merger or alliance – or perhaps the larger DUP will simply and slowly cannibalise its weaker rival.
This task could be made easier if the more moderate wing of the DUP (which now bizarrely seems to include Ian Paisley Jr) ends up in the ascendancy.
Silo Two – the nationalist/republican one. Again, another zero sum game with SF picking up most (though not all) SDLP losses in the past. Last May the Nationalist silo reduced by a whopping 5% to drop to its lowest level. SF dropped just over 3% and the SDLP lost just under 2%. Some of the SF loss last May went to the PBP – SF took a chunk of that back this time around.
It also motivated voters in a way it had not in many years.
The SDLP had what on the surface looks like a reasonable day. It lost two seats – both to SF, via Richie McPhilips in Fermanagh and Sth Tyrone and Alex Attwood in Belfast West. These are two seats that an even moderately successful party should be losing.
The SDLP has the youngest, brightest and most politically astute leader it has ever had, but he cannot reverse decades of decline and directionlessness by himself.
The centrality of Brexit to the result and to the political future means any nationalist party needs to have a major all island focus and dimension. SF can claim this – though more in appearance than fact – the SDLP as it is currently configured does not. It needs to develop or transition into gaining it or it will continue to falter and gradually decline.
The SDLP won three seats on transfers. One was John Dallat who held on against the odds in East Derry, while the other two were new-ish seats: Dolores Kelly in Upper Bann – who won back the seat she narrowly lost last May and the really big winner on the day – Pat Catney in Lagan Valley who took a seat that no pundit saw as winnable and did it with a solid ground campaign of hard work and canvassing.
His campaign was the closest thing I have seen in NI to an old school Fianna Fáil election campaign. That said these three SDLP seats are vulnerable to either Unionist resurgence or to SF aggression.
Silo Three is the non aligned – the Alliance, Greens etc. They had a reasonable day, particularly Alliance. It did not have a great campaign, but it does have a charismatic and smart new leader in Naomi Long. She was forceful and commanding in her media appearances and could drive up Alliance gains in the future at the expense of a wounded and haemorrhaging UUP.
4. Politics in Northern Ireland have not yet broken the mound – but the ground work for such a change has been laid and it has been laid by the voters not the politicians. They did this first at the Brexit referendum when they rejected the campaign to leave the EU and they repeated it again last Thursday.
Northern politics needs to change. Unionism is now the political force in crisis. Arlene Foster’s stubborn adherence to Brexit in the face of its popular rejection has undermined her own position and thrown Unionism into turmoil.
While she can comfort herself that most DUP voters were pro-brexit she cannot blithely ignore the concerns of 56% of the voters, if she wants to be taken seriously as a First Minister of all of Northern Ireland.
Her response to Brexit, her hands off approach to governance and her dismissive attitude to nationalism and republicanism over recent months has resulted in reawakening nationalism and republicanism – particularly in the middle classes – and making it more politically aware and motivated than it has been in decades.
This is something that was signposted last September, when Colum Eastwood said in a speech to the British/Irish Association:
“Northern nationalists are once more a restless people. The constitutional accommodation which we voted for by referendum in 1998 has been violated, not by a vote of the people of Northern Ireland, but rather by a vote of others in the UK 18 years later.
The blanket of that constitutional comfort has been abruptly removed. In particular, undermining our connection with the South achieved via common EU membership is not something which can be tolerated.
They (Brexiteers) told a story of decisions being dictated by far away people and politicians with no connection or rightful authority to the places over which they prescribed their power. They summed it up in a clever and cutting soundbite – Take back control.
To all those Brexiteers now at the heart of the British Government, Irish nationalism says this– we know how you feel. No one should therefore be surprised if in the wake of Brexit ‘Taking Back Control’ is precisely what we in the North now intend to do.”
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here usually every Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney