The dust is still settling on the results over the water, and it’ll be some time before we know the composition of the next UK government. So that’s the subject of another post. However, it was clear straight away that this was an extraordinary election here in Northern Ireland, with a number of pointers towards a different way of doing things in future.
As this is East Belfast Diary, I have to start with Northern Ireland’s Portillo moment. Naomi Long ran a highly effective campaign, despite the disingenuous and irritating claim that she was ‘only 52 votes’ behind Peter Robinson. This statistic applied to the last Assembly election, whereas in the 2005 general election she came third, with 3,746 votes compared to Robinson’s poll-topping 15,152 – a distinction that our Alliance canvasser struggled with. She’ll have to work hard to retain the seat, but for now the combination of disgust at the Robinsons’ antics and tactical voting gains from nationalists and the PUP (who didn’t stand) produced the most fantastic result of the night. As an East Belfast resident, I was also pleased because I think the result reflects the changing character of at least some parts of this fascinating constituency.
The East Belfast result, along with the Justice Ministry, strengthens Alliance’s position as a serious political player. But the failure of the UUP/ Conservative partnership to win a single seat has more far-reaching implications, in two ways. First, it raises questions about the future of the UUP. On BBC NI’s election night programme, David McNarry lost no time in putting the boot into Sir Reg, but, more rationally, Arlene Foster talked about unionist ‘realignment’. Although more unionist pacts are an option, I’m beginning to wonder if the UUP will simply fade away, with some members going to the DUP and others to Alliance. Secondly, and of more interest to me personally, is the likely fallout from the link with the Conservatives. It shows the problem with trying to merge territorial politics with a left – right continuum. I suspect that the Tory version of the experience will be ‘it’s a nightmare, don’t go there’. It’ll make UK Labour Party involvement in NI elections even less likely, but if they do come in, it’ll be on their own rather than in coalition with a local party.
My final point is about the role of NI’s MPs in a hung Parliament. We have eight unionist MPs, three nationalists taking their seat; one Alliance and one unionist Independent who is known to have Labour sympathies. All plan to make strategic choices to maximise the benefits to Northern Ireland in the new Parliament, or rather, in reality, to minimise the damage. Although this approach sometimes came across in the election campaign as irritatingly parochial, it’s also a unifying factor. In particular, it may be that the SDLP, Alliance and Lady Sylvia find they have a lot in common. Cross-party working at Westminster could help to create an environment in which we can move to a voluntary coalition in the Assembly, and start to discuss more creative ways of working together in the new local councils.
These three aspects of the 2010 NI general election are extremely significant. Together, they indicate the possible beginning of a restructuring of NI politics that might begin to move us away from the domination of the territorial issue and the sectarian carve-up – I am being very tentative here. A stronger ‘middle ground’ party; a realignment of unionism; and new partnerships at Westminster in the interest of all Northern Ireland’s people. Moving away from ethnic politics may start to look like less of a bonkers idea than previously.
This post is also up at Irish Left Review.