The collapse in his vote was celebrated by Catholic and Protestant working class people across the North who saw the result as a popular verdict on Robinson’s dodgy dealings with wealthy property speculators and his role in the MP expenses scandal. In March, the BBC reported how Robinson had been sold a plot of land near his home for just £5, which he then sold on to make a £460,000 profit. The individual who sold him the land was Fred Fraser, one of the millionaire property developers who was involved in giving £50,000 to Robinson’s wife and disgraced ex-MP and MLA Iris. The 20% fall in Robinsons vote went to the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long. The fact that neither the Ulster Unionist and Conservatives (UCUNF) nor the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) were able to exploit this crisis for the DUP in East Belfast is significant. It is a humiliating defeat for Unionism to lose East Belfast – an overwhelmingly Protestant constituency. This vote for Long though is in no way an endorsement of the Alliance Party’s neo-liberal policies. Neither does it represent a qualitative shift in support to Alliance. The swing to Alliance in East Belfast represents, in a distorted form, a protest vote against corruption and the anti-working class policies of Peter Robinson and the ruling parties in the Executive. Now that their leader David Ford has taken the Justice Minster post, Alliance are part of the Executive in Stormont. They have made it clear that they will support the Executive’s cuts to public services and have called for the introduction of water charges – which are hugely unpopular.
Robinson’s defeat represents another nail in the coffin of his leadership of the DUP. Even though a meeting of DUP MLA’s gave Robinson unanimous backing to continue as DUP leader, it is very unlikely he will survive for long.
Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has announced he is to stand down in the Autumn after a disastrous election campaign. The marriage with the Tories will prove to be a shotgun wedding borne out of desperation which will not last. In the lead up to the elections, serious clashes broke out between the Tories and the Ulster Unionists, especially after it was leaked that the Tories via their Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson had secretly facilitated talks between the UUP and the DUP on the question of unionist unity. Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Cameron also did no favours to the UCUNF project when the Tory leader singled out Northern Ireland as an area where there would be major public sector cuts. The Tories even went as far as comparing the size of the public sector in Northern Ireland to a former Soviet state!
End of the TUV?
Last year’s European election results which saw Sinn Fein top the poll as a result of a three-way split in unionism has forced the UUP and DUP to engage in high-level discussions in an attempt to reach agreement on unionist unity. The Orange Order has also chaired meetings between the parties, which are designed to unite the unionist vote having been fractured due to the challenge of the TUV. The TUV represents a significant opposition from ex-DUP supporters who are opposed to power-sharing with Sinn Fein. In the European election, TUV leader Jim Allister took an impressive 14% of the DUP’s vote. Many commentators incorrectly predicted the TUV would repeat this performance at the general election, even though the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections favours the bigger parties. The TUV stood in 10 out of the 18 constituencies and received 3.8% of the total votes in the North. In North Antrim, Allister received 7,114 votes (16.8%) compared to the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr who took the seat with 19,672 votes (46.4%). While the TUV did not come close to challenging for the seat, the fact that they secured almost 17% and the DUP’s vote fell by more than 8% points to them potentially taking two Assembly seats in North Antrim next May. Overall, based on the general election results, it is possible the TUV could take six or seven seats in the Assembly, which would propel Sinn Fein as the largest party in the Assembly, entitling them to take the First Minister position. Sinn Fein gained the highest share of the vote at the general election with 25.5%. Such a scenario would paralyse the peace process, as unionists will never accept such an outcome.
Since the elections, both the UUP and the DUP have made very conciliatory statements regarding unionist unity. They are both under pressure from unionist supporters on the ground to do a deal. It is certain talks will continue between the DUP and UUP to attempt a voting pact or even, for the purposes of securing the First Minister post, a technical merger before next May’s Assembly elections, in spite of the hostility between the two rival parties. The closeness of the result in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, where the DUP and UUP backed a compromise “independent” unionist candidate only to lose to Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew by only 4 votes, is being used as an example of how unionists can work together. There are ambitious careerists in both parties who want to maintain the devolved institutions. At the same time, there are significant sections of the DUP who are sensitive to the challenge of the TUV. It cannot be ruled out that the process of co-operation with the UUP could also meet opposition from the more hardline sections in the DUP who could at a certain point be attracted to the TUV. Splits from the DUP to the TUV cannot be ruled out at a certain point which could undermine the whole process of uniting unionism.
It is also possible that the DUP may push to amend the legislation to revert the process of electing the First Minister. Under the St Andrews Agreement, the position of First Minster goes to the largest party, whereas under the Good Friday Agreement, it went to the largest bloc (unionist or nationalist). However, this would be opposed by Sinn Fein and would lead to another crisis.
Socialist alternative needed to sectarian politics
Overall the elections were yet another sectarian headcount. The key issues affecting the majority of people, such as unemployment, public services and water charges were ignored. Even the mainstream political pundits struggled to whip up any interest in the election. There was no enthusiasm for any of the parties. Overall turnout in Northern Ireland was just 57.6% – the lowest of all the UK by a long distance. There is a growing political vacuum in the North. At a recent protest against the closure of A&E services at Mid-Ulster hospital, all the local politicians, including Deputy First Minster Martin McGuinness who was elected with 52% of the vote, were heckled by the large crowd. Socialist Party members spoke at the protest and intervened to accuse the politicians who had turned up of pure hypocrisy since it was they who were carrying out the cuts, received lots of applause. This is a small but important example of how a socialist alternative, which can unite working class and poor people against the Tory policies of the sectarian parties, can begin to gain support. It is likely the £400m cuts already announced this year will lead to more protests and campaigns to defend services. The trade unions have a responsibility to break their cosy ties with the Assembly parties and begin to build a political alternative which unites workers and young people across the North in opposition to the cuts of all the parties in the Executive and puts forward a clear socialist alternative to capitalism and sectarianism.