Result could underpin the future of Stormont
Result could underpin the future of Stormont

By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

In Britain, the outcome of the Westminster general election has brought uncertainty and instability, with the possibility of a second election within a year.

Although, on the face of it, the election may also seem to have caused turmoil in unionist circles in the North, paradoxically, the results will ensure greater stability and confidence in the Stormont institutions.

Naturally, everyone will point to the most sensational result of the election - namely, the defeat of Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson after 31 years as MP for East Belfast. However, as the dust settles, it is clear the voters were out to punish Robinson personally, rather than his party. All other DUP MPs were re-elected.

The outrageous parliamentary expenses claims of Robinson and his wife, speculation about land deals with a developer and his infamous ‘Mr Angry’ interview on local BBC television seem to have repelled the electorate. They switched to a ‘Ms Clean’ - Naomi Long, the Lord Mayor of Belfast.

The real story of the election was the defeat and death of two projects, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) led by former DUP MEP Jim Allister, and the Ulster Conservative and Unionist - New Force (UCUNF), the ill-fated link with the British Conservatives, unkindly dubbed the ‘New Farce’. Both parties threatened the stability of the North’s institutions.

The TUV’s fire was concentrated relentlessly on the DUP for ‘selling out’ on its promise not to share power with Sinn Fein.

TUV candidates stood in safe unionist constituencies to try to take votes from the DUP and hand the seats to their UCUNF rivals. Allister himself faced Ian Paisley Jnr in a bitter personal contest in North Antrim. Paisley crushed him (19,672 to 7,114), taking 46 per cent of the vote.

The other TUV candidates crashed in similar fashion. Allister’s crestfallen face and his concession speech clearly signalled the end of his campaign.

Reg Empey’s UCUNF was also designed to damage and undermine his DUP rivals. By linking with the Conservatives in Britain, Empey held out the fantasy of unionists being in the government. Unfortunately for them, as a hung parliament loomed, it wasn’t clear whether the Conservatives would form the government.

Then, alas, David Cameron told the BBC that the North would be first in line for cuts because the region’s government aid had reached ‘‘Soviet’’ proportions.

Unionists perceived Empey’s project as a ‘dog in the manger’ exercise to get back at the DUP - which had displaced the UUP as the dominant unionist party. Unionist voters rejected UCUNF (which did not get a single MP elected), and Empey himself was humiliated. He had left East Belfast to fight in South Antrim, where he saw an opportunity to unseat veteran DUPMP Rev Willie McCrea.

He failed there, while, in the East Belfast constituency he deserted, Long took the prize scalp of the election where Empey had previously failed twice.

The consequences of this double defeat for the challengers to the DUP will be long lasting.

The one lesson unionists will learn from this election is that division among unionists led to Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in the North.

Translated into Assembly terms, it means in next year’s Assembly election that Martin McGuinness would be eligible to become First Minister. It would be political hara-kiri for any unionist to accept the role of deputy First Minister to former IRA leader McGuinness.

The result will be a move towards unionist unity before next year’s Assembly elections, and that unity will be under the auspices of the DUP. Unionist voters will be impatient with any party obstructing such moves. For Empey’s party, in disarray after this election, there may be no option but to throw in its lot with the DUP.

Empey’s fruitless decision to split the party by concocting the UCUNF ploy has seen his leadership questioned by his own Assembly members.

Already, there has been murmuring in the DUP that Robinson is a dead weight who could drag the party down.

The man who replaced Iris Robinson as Strangford MP, Jim Shannon, refused to endorse him last Friday. Nor would McCrea. No longer an MP, Robinson cannot negotiate at Westminster in the hung parliament.

Who, then, will be the new leader of the DUP parliamentary group? A new leader would start with a clean sheet and be more acceptable to disconsolate UUP assembly members than the acerbic Robinson - who never missed an opportunity to berate the UUP.

The bottom line, however, is that unionists have voted overwhelmingly for the DUP as a party they want to share power with Sinn Fein, and have also clearly rejected groups that wished to undermine the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. The plethora of unionist independents and TUV and UCUNF candidates gave the impression of unionism at sixes and sevens.

However, in rejecting them all, the unionist electorate has clearly signalled that they want continuing stability.

To that end, they have given encouragement for the DUP to pursue the path it is on.

As for Sinn Fein, the other dominant party in the North, its major figures - Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Pat Doherty and Conor Murphy - have all consolidated their positions, most with an increased vote.

In remarkable contrast to Robinson’s fate, Adams shrugged off allegations by former IRA comrades about his activities in the 1970s, as well as criticism about how he handled allegations of sex abuse against his brother. He actually increased his vote in a reduced turnout and polled the highest total in the North, (22,840), with 71 per cent of the vote, an astonishing figure by any standards.

The response of Sinn Fein leaders like Adams and McGuinness to the misfortune of Robinson was a further indication of the desire on the part of both parties to maintain good relations with each other.

There was no jeering or sneering.

Instead, both men immediately commiserated with ‘Peter’ and hoped - probably forlornly - that he could continue to lead the DUP.

The only touch of schadenfreude came from Adams, who complained that unionist leaders didn’t seem to last long these days. He listed David Trimble, Ian Paisley - ‘‘who only lasted a year’’ as First Minister - and Robinson.

Another first: a Sinn Fein leader regretting the demise of a unionist leader.

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