No leader now speaks for most Unionists

Posted By: June 02, 2014

Sam Mc Bride. News Letter. Monday, June 2, 2014

Opinion: Despite returning the same three MEPs, the outcome of last week’s European election changes the political landscape.

The pro-Union vote has increased by a small, but significant, margin — up from 49 per cent five years ago to 52.6 per cent, while nationalism has seen its vote fall from 42.2 per cent to just 38.5 per cent.

But one of the factors behind those statistics – the vast range of pro-Union parties in these elections – has a significant consequence: there is no longer a single unionist leader who commands the votes of a majority of unionists.

In both the 2010 Westminster election and the 2011 Assembly election, a majority of unionist voters backed the DUP. In the last Assembly poll, that margin between the DUP and the combined vote of other unionists was about 80,000.

Although the DUP maintains a long lead over the disparate other unionists in terms of seats – and is likely to do so in next year’s General Election – the fact that most unionists no longer vote DUP presents a problem not only for the party, but also for the Government and for Sinn Fein.

For the Government, as it considers whether to re-start the Haass talks, it is now clear that the support of Peter Robinson alone is not sufficient to ensure that unionism endorses any deal.

Likewise for Sinn Fein, which has already learnt the hard way over the Maze that if grassroots unionism rises up against the DUP on an issue, Mr Robinson may not be able to keep his side of a bargain.

And, unlike when David Trimble lost support but the Government and Sinn Fein could turn to Ian Paisley, there is no obvious alternative unionist leader.

With looming negotiations on everything from parading to welfare reform, this election result makes agreement less likely.