Hold onto your hats, because we’re going to be covering the North’s federal election in three parts. First, we’ll look at the unionist result; second, at the nationalist/republican result; finally, we’ll number-crunch the republican and left votes to get some sense of where an opposition might come from.
Why do I call this the Old Firm election? Well, if you’re a kid in Glasgow, you’re hardly going to support Partick Thistle, are you? Likewise, it had already been determined in advance that there were only two main parties, and since the preferred outcome was a DUP-PSF coalition – the idiot savant in Downing Street having divined that this was the best chance of stability – there was a mighty incentive to the electorate to confirm recent trends and put those two parties in the driving seat. Which they duly did.
In broad terms, the DUP beat the OUP by better than two to one in votes (30.1% to 14.9%) and exactly two to one in seats (36 to 18). Take your eyes off the 27.5% swing in Jeffrey Boy’s Lagan Valley fiefdom – rather look at plummeting OUP votes in East Derry, South Antrim, Strangford and East Antrim among many sometime party strongholds. OUP candidates who used to breeze in on the first count, notably Sir Reg himself, were left waiting on transfers. It seems too, vide the Alliance revival exemplified by Naomi Long’s barnstorming performance in East Belfast, that the OUP is caught in a pincer movement. Not only has its right wing decamped en masse to Papa Doc, but the moderates (natural Alliance supporters in other words) who had previously lent their votes to the OUP on the grounds that it was pro-agreement, have been less than impressed by Empey’s strategy of trying to out-Paisley Paisley.
The OUP will survive in the medium term, as a home for those who don’t like the DUP’s bible-bashing and find Alliance just a bit too Awfully Awfully, and also because it retains a few people like Danny Kennedy who have a profile as decent public representatives. But having lost its raison d’être as the leading unionist party, it’s difficult to see a way out.
The dissident unionists likewise found out that you can’t out-Paisley Paisley. Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, whose egocentric bid to win six seats had provided rare entertainment, ended up losing out in North Down to veteran councillor Brian Wilson, an Alliance man manqué who fell out with his party years ago, kept on being elected as an independent, and now represents the Greens. Paul “Sports Massage” Berry only held a quarter of his vote and is now bowing out of politics; amiable Strangford DUP MLA George Ennis, who had defected to the Bobite heresy, not only lost his seat but suffered the humiliation of polling less than the Provos in a constituency which is something of a unionist Heart of Darkness. No, the only potential opposition the Big Man has to worry about is that in his own party.
So unionism has effectively united behind Big Ian, but without losing its contradictions. It isn’t entirely accurate to say that the Donaldsonites have gone from being the right wing of the OUP to the left wing of the DUP, but nor is it totally inaccurate. People like Arlene Foster, Jimmy Spratt, Peter Weir and Jeffrey Boy himself would be unimaginable in the DUP of ten years ago. However, the party cadre – more so than its voting base – retains many people of the Singing Willie variety who will slap the Lundy name on Big Ian as soon as he oversteps the line. The major division is between those Duppies who don’t want to share power at all on theological grounds, and those who will try and hold out for some kind of modified majority rule.
This could be seen in Paisley’s own reaction to the result, once you stripped away the biblical efflorescence. “I want two things,” arsa an Dochtúir Mór. “I want a big massive financial package from Gordo, and I want an ejector seat so I can kick the Shinners out of the Executive whenever I damn well feel like it.” The ejector seat is necessary to placate the base, even if the Big Man is willing to deal. The trouble is that the baseline Catholic demand in the North is for equality, and even those unionists willing to share power don’t want to do it on the basis of equality. Polling evidence tends to show that the DUP is pretty representative of Protestant opinion on this issue. The question is, how far will the Provos bend to meet them?
Rud eile: One notable thing about the Alliance performance was the election of Anna Lo in South Belfast, providing some much-needed representation for the beleaguered Chinese community. Anna thus becomes the first ethnic minority person ever to be elected in the North, and the first Chinese person to be elected to a parliamentary assembly in these islands. That aside, it was dead smart of Alliance to build on South Belfast’s existing liberal vote by appealing to the large Chinese population in the area. If Gerry McGeough had been cuter, maybe he could have linked up with the League of Polish Families.