Edging towards a two-party tussle

by Chris Donnelly

THE 2005 Westminster and local government elections in the six counties were envisaged by some as a scenario where the two communities would return one dominant party each. We would have a two-party future, where Paisley and his ambitious pinstriped brigade would face off against the wily Shinners in a battle for the future of the six counties.

In the end, only half of the story was written this time around.

These elections will be remembered for the manner in which the Democratic Unionist Party delivered a hammer blow to the David Trimble-led Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

The UUP, in its centenary year, was on the receiving end of a knockout punch, losing all but one of its MPs, with party leader David Trimble joining three other out-going MPs as the Paisley-led DUP steamrolled the once-dominant Ulster Unionists.

The result was not unpredicted. The UUP, under Trimble, have limped from crisis to crisis in recent times, falling behind the DUP in the 2003 Assembly election.

The manner and scale of the defeat of the party, which once held governance for 50 years in the state, was surprising.

The Ulster Unionist campaign was launched on a slogan proclaiming, "Decent people vote Ulster Unionist." It perhaps best captured the complete inability of the Ulster Unionist leadership to appreciate the circumstances it found itself in and how to deal with their declining appeal.

It was quite an undignified fall from grace for a party which, from its inception, viewed itself as the natural party of the ruling elite within Protestant Ulster, able to call upon the support of the broad masses, all falling in line to the beat of the Orange drum.

It was the Ulster Unionists who, until very recently, held an organic link to the Orange and Black Institutions; it was the Ulster Unionists who provided every leader of the northern state from 1921 onward.

Over the past 35 years, the Ulster Unionists had held off the threat of the Ian Paisley-led DUP rather comfortably at regional and Westminster elections, losing out to the demagogic leader only at European elections, which could be dismissed as personality contests and not really indicative of wider unionist sentiment. But the Good Friday agreement changed all that.

Put in a position of having to support power-sharing, equality measures and changes to policing, the Trimble-led party began to fragment, torn between the instinctive tendency to oppose any concessions to nationalism and the cold rational logic that dictated supporting the agreement and its mechanisms as a logical advance from the political deadlock that prevailed for more than a generation.

Trimble and his party spent much of the five years following on from the agreement bemoaning the consequences of the deal to which they were co-signatories.

Their begrudging approach to the agreement served to heighten unionist apprehensions and sowed the seeds of the party's own destruction. The 2003 Assembly elections provided the real death knell of Trimble-led Ulster Unionism. Its inability to navigate a course out of their difficulties in the eighteen months since then was merely further evidence of the party's decline.

Many unionists saw this as evidence that Trimble's party was a pale shadow of the Ulster Unionist party of pre-1998 and certainly a poor second to the rampant DUP of today.

The DUP have succeeded in uniting unionism around the party, eradicating the fragmentation that had beset political Unionism following the Good Friday agreement in 1998.

It's worth remembering that, following the 1998 assembly elections, there was, at one stage, seven different unionist political groupings with members in the assembly.

Five years on, the DUP have successfully mopped up the anti-agreement vote, with their status as the unifying vehicle of unionism now consolidated beyond a doubt.

The consequent success of the party in galvanising the unionist vote, scoring high-profile electoral successes, has elevated unionist political self-confidence and confounded those believing that unionist fragmentation was here to stay for the long term.

The DUP is the largest unionist political party in all but one constituency in the north of Ireland and the largest unionist party in 19 of the 26 district councils (the UUPare larger on five councils, with two having equal representation.)

The scale of the DUP victory illustrates the depth of unionist opposition to the basic principles of the Good Friday agreement, namely power-sharing and equality.

In spite of the Trimble-led UUP supporting the agreement from 1998 and entering a power-sharing executive, the party never sought to reconcile power-sharing with the unionist psyche.

From 1998, the behaviour of unionists towards nationalists on local government councils did not alter. Power-sharing was shunned as an intolerable concession to nationalists.

Advances by the DUP to date have been impressive. However, it will only be truly tested when the party faces up to the responsibilities it now shoulders.

Unionists have thrown their weight behind the fundamentalists. They expect results from hardliners. But, as the December 2004 talks illustrate, the room for manoeuvre is very small and the party knows that a deal will have to involve embracing Martin McGuiness as deputy first minister and its active participation in all-Ireland bodies.

On the nationalist side, Sinn Féin failed to deliver a similar crushing blow to the SDLP, though it did succeed in further consolidating its position as the voice of northern nationalists.

South Belfast was perhaps the story of the Westminster election, due to the surprise election of the SDLP's Alisdair McDonnell. Getting elected with a combined nationalist vote of just 41 per cent, McDonnell benefited from a poor unionist turnout and a hopelessly divided unionist vote, evenly split between two uninspiring candidates.

The election within nationalism was notable for the fact that the SDLP in its core constituencies succeeded in galvanising two types of voters.

The first was the apathetic SDLP voter, who notably failed to turn out for the party in the 2003 assembly election and the European election of the following year. The SDLP from 2001 has seen its vote across the north fall dramatically - from 169,000 in 2001, it fell to 117,000 in 2003 and to just 87,000 votes in 2004.

This time around, the party succeeded in bringing some of that support base back to the polls, getting 125,000 votes, a critical factor in the successful return of its three MPs, most notably Eddie McGrady in South Down and Mark Durkan in Foyle.

The party was also successful in withstanding the Sinn Féin campaign to take control of Derry and Newry and Mourne councils.

The second was the tactical unionist voter. In the two Westminster constituencies mentioned above, there were a significant number of unionist voters who opted for the SDLP candidate, motivated by a desire to keep Sinn Féin at bay and thereby act as kingmaker in choosing their political opponent. The SDLPin Derry actively canvassed the unionist electorate, using mail shots and a phone canvass to reach the unionist parts of the constituency.

While Sinn Féin did not succeed in reducing the SDLP to a solitary MP - as was predicted by many media elements - the Sinn Féin results are impressive when viewed against the 2005 election background.

For five months, a concerted media onslaught launched against republicans followed the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney in Belfast. Republicans had been politically isolated in Ireland. The political establishments in London, Dublin and Washington had used a compliant media to use events surrounding the killing of Robert McCartney in particular, to turn the heat on Sinn Féin and the IRA.

The election campaign was also marked by an unprecedented flurry of canvassing by southern Irish political leaders against Sinn Féin and in favour of the SDLP. This included a memorable visit by the bete noir of republicans, Progressive Democrat Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, to South Belfast where he was heckled by anti-rascism campaigners whom he later alleged were sent on behalf of the IRA!

The loss of the Belfast Council seat in the Short Strand area to Alliance was undoubtedly the result of the McCartney episode, though not in the sense that many in the media would have us believe. The figures illustrate how the Sinn Féin vote in the Short Strand held up almost completely, indicating the retention of very strong communal support for republicans in the traditionally republican area.

However, the seat was lost due to the SDLP voters in the ward transferring their votes to Alliance. Four years ago, when the seat was first taken by Sinn Féin, the SDLP voters were responsible for electing the Sinn Féin councillor on the back of their pivotal transfers decisively favouring the Sinn Féin candidate.

It would appear that the McCartney incident prompted many SDLPvoters to demote Sinn Féin in their list of transfer preferences, a decision costing the party the seat.

Sinn Féin's successes at Westminster were confined to consolidating the four seats gained in 1997 and 2001 and claiming the Newry and Armagh seat formerly held by Seamus Mallon.

The party's ascent in this constituency has impressed in recent years. The elevation of Conor Murphy to the status of MP will undoubtedly add fuel to the growing belief that he is a potential party leader of the future.

The party was more successful at local government level, claiming 18 new seats to take the party's total to 126 - 25 more than the SDLP. Sinn Féin succeeded in gaining the party's first elected representatives on Banbridge, Ballymena and Coleraine Councils.

It also took effective control of Magherafelt and Strabane Councils by winning half of all seats on each respective council.

Perhaps the most impressive election result of all occurred in the Lower Falls council area of Belfast. Long regarded as a republican stronghold, Sinn Féin achieved the unprecedented return of five councillors from the five seats available.

The election confirmed the DUP as the unambiguous voice of unionism and Sinn Féin as the less pronounced but equally clear choice for nationalists.

For the SDLP, the election must have precipitated a collective sigh of relief. They have survived to live another day, but must be aware that the failure of Sinn Féin to finish the party off was more to do with the political context of the election than with nationalists reaffirming their faith in the party of Durkan, McGrady and McDonnell.

The real difficulty for the SDLP is that republicans are likely to face future elections in much more favourable circumstances. The party has secured little more than a reprieve and must be pondering its fate.

For the DUP, the old adage 'to the victors, the spoils' would appear the order of the day.

The party is demanding the right to appoint Lords, to select the new chair of the Policing Board and is determined to isolate and marginalise republicans at local government level where its rule holds sway.

Republicanism will be heartened by Sinn Féin's ability to further increase its electoral mandate in spite of recent adverse media attention. Adams'advice to the IRA is likely to ensure Sinn Féin succeeds in turning the spotlight back on to unionism and its glaring dislike of power-sharing with nationalists.

The DUP are demanding fresh assembly elections before the resurrection of the institution. If conducted in the 'post-IRA' scenario envisioned by Gerry Adams, it is likely to see the final piece of the two-party jigsaw put in place.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-07-27 12:33:16.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2005 Chris Donnelly