Posted By: May 17, 2016

THE IRISH NEWS – Monday 09 May 2016

Plus ca change? I hear you say. The elections are over and as predicted there has been very little change. The top two positions (although co terminus and equal in law) were never in any doubt of changing – Martin will still be deputy to Arlene.

The DUP achievement in this election is nothing short of stunning. They have taken a right-wing political party and planted its credentials firmly in the centre of mainstream unionism.

I once asked a leading DUP figure what they hoped to achieve by the so-called overtures to Catholic voters and the reply was prophetic in terms of this election: “We never want Catholics to be so motivated to go out to roust us from a seat in the way that it happened in Mid Ulster or South Antrim, where they will even vote for another unionist party to remove us.” They succeeded. The nationalist vote is now down by five per cent, its lowest ebb since the Good Friday Agreement.

This doesn’t mean that Northern Ireland has a shrinking nationalist or Catholic population – in fact, however one describes that section of the community its growing numerically but there’s a part of it that seems content and less agitated about their position within northern society. Former unionist Prime Minister in the old Stormont regime, Terence O’Neill belatedly got that part of the equality argument too.

He believed that if the Catholic community could feel more like an equal partner and a stakeholder within Northern Ireland, then it was possible that their aspiration to a united Ireland may dim. Remember the Civil Rights demands had little to do with Irish unity. And so now it would seem that some within the Catholic community are now disinclined to vote. The SDLP and Sinn Féin don’t speak their language and they are not quite ready to vote unionist so they opt to stay at home.

That’s not to say that older Catholics haven’t been turned off by the more secular leanings of both the SDLP and SF – they have and some may have even voted DUP. But Arlene Foster’s main victory was cemented by winning the hearts and minds of mainstream unionists.

Sinn Féin’s electoral performance as good as it was, proved that the party is far from invincible. It’s share of first preference votes is down by nearly three per cent but their dominance as the main voice of northern nationalism is more than secure. Just as in the Republic of Ireland, their main challenge is coming from their left. This is a space where the SDLP, whether they like it or not, has no credibility with the electorate.

People before Profit is a party of huge appeal to a wide range of lefties, liberals, Trotskyites, socialists and even discontented republicans, some with dubious associations, but in their successful candidates – the veteran serial protestor, Eamon McCann and the charismatic and young, Gerry Carroll – they have found two articulate advocates. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer – only time will tell if PBP is the start of something new or a flash in the electoral pan.

Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionist party made no gains but are back to their pre-defection numbers. It will be disappointing for Nesbitt but his leadership is hardly threatened by the party’s performance.

The new SDLP leader had a few worrying moments on count day as the party hovered at nine seats. Six months and a fresh face is not long enough to present a new offering to the public. To his credit his new look and youthful SDLP will now dominate his front bench. The party took the heavy hit of two seat losses but one can only imagine the carnage if the SDLP had not changed direction. Eastwood has three years to mature into his role and providing his approach is less West Wing and more grassroots-orientated he should be able to pitch with more stature at the next election.

Alliance as predicted made no gains (or losses) but some of its ground is now shared with the Green Party who doubled their representation to two. UKIP made no impact in  the elections and are now a spent force in Northern Ireland along with Villiers Tories and those advocating Labour Representation. The TUV’s future is also uncertain as its omnipresent leader remains its sole voice.

So now, to the victors the spoils but spare a thought for those who stood and lost. Immaterial of their party allegiance political debate is much richer for their participation.