Things may never be the same again

By Tom McGurk (for the Sunday Business Post)

The British electorate has not so much spoken as seemingly held its political nose, by delivering its most remarkable election result since 1929. As Wall Street stocks tumbled and the Greek financial crisis rumbled on, a Rubik’s Cube of political possibilities was delivered.

British voters - having endured the MPs’ expenses crisis and the Iraq War - have shown a marked lack of confidence in their politicians.

Things may never be the same there again.

Nor may they ever be the same again in the North. There, the leaders of the three unionist parties all suffered at the polls.

The DUP dropped 8.7 per cent, to 25 per cent of the vote, and its leader, Peter Robinson, lost his seat: Reg Empey’s relationship with the British Tory party left him without a seat, and his Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCUNF) party was down 2.6 per cent, with 15.2 per cent of the vote.

The challenge of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party never materialised.

The scale of the TUV’s failure can be seen in the fact that, in the European elections last June, it picked up 13 per cent of the unionist vote. Last Thursday, that fell to 3.9 per cent.

For the first time in modern history, unionists will not have the majority of the North’s MPs.

Interestingly, and for the first time, Sinn Fein outpolled the DUP, with 171,942 votes to 168,216.That may be significant if proportional representation materialises in the North.

This figure however discludes the 21,296 votes cast for Independent Unionist Rodney Connor -who lost out on a seat to Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh by just four votes.

But, apart from Robinson’s personal political problems in East Belfast, the unionist results were good news for the peace process.

The DUP destroyed the TUV challenge to power-sharing and new politics, which vindicated Robinson’s decisions to share power with Sinn Fein and recently accept the devolution of policing and justice.

The concern that Allister’s party would prove a serious threat to the DUP in next year’s Assembly election now looks unfounded - and that will come as a relief to the governments in Dublin and London. Could it be that a generation of negative unionism has finally come to an end?

Even better for the DUP, the future of the UCUNF is in serious doubt. For the first time ever, it will have no Westminster representation - a generation ago, it had all of the 14 seats on offer. Empey’s future as leader must now be in doubt but, in many ways, it may be irrelevant in the overall scheme of things.

The DUP is now the major representative of the unionist community in the North and, some 40 years after Ian Paisley first won the North Antrim seat, it has finally replaced the old Ulster Unionist Party.

On the nationalist side, apart from the extraordinary political circus that Fermanagh/South Tyrone has become once again, Sinn Fein and SDLP results remained stable.

Importantly, the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein has been very good throughout the campaign - in particular, the relationship building between Robinson and Martin McGuinness.

In terms of Assembly elections to come next year, Sinn Fein’s prospects of being the single largest party and, thereby, supplying a First Minister, have improved with these results. Its electoral total of24 per cent is just behind the DUP, at 26.8 per cent.

The DUP seems to have settled into the new era while, in contrast, Allister’s TUV challenge may well be the last roar of the traditional unionist force which has been the principal agent defending the old sectarian status quo.

Significantly, this time round - unlike in the 1970s - a British general election has not disturbed the North’s existing political status quo. Devolution at Stormont looks stronger than ever and perhaps, for the first time, the North may at last be embracing a new future.

It could take weeks to decipher the political conundrum at Westminster.

Already, senior Labour strategists like Peter Mandelson have suggested that this may be the last election under the old ‘first past the post’ system. New Labour may now be feeling the generational pull, and may even sense that the problems created by proportional representation may well suffice for the next generation, but not for itself.

Whoever emerges as British prime minister must build a progressive government that creates economic stability and puts a floor under sterling. Current predictions suggest that Britain may be facing an even greater deficit than Greece.

This was the elephant in the room during the election, and it will now have to be confronted. Can Britain deal with it?

It is difficult to see the Tories and the Liberal Democrats coming to an arrangement in the end; a Liberal Democrat marriage with Labour would be politically and culturally much easier to achieve.

The price of that might be a new Labour leader, with David Miliband potentially replacing Gordon Brown.

Whatever happens, British voters may have ended centuries of the old political system.

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