The aftermath of the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall in December of last year has, I am sure, created many a sleepless night for some of our Unionist politicians here in Northern Ireland. Politicians, always watching their votes in an electorally competitive environment, would be wise to worry as this saga has shaken the Unionist community and electorate.
The electorate can never be taken for granted, this was demonstrated in the 2010 General election when First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA, lost his Westminster seat – a seat he held from 1979; that’s after thirty-one years in Parliament. It is suggested that this loss, despite the retention of eight of the nine seats held in 2005, has contributed to DUP electoral strategy. I believe that this is correct and this is the same for the Ulster Unionist Party – both of whom, as political parties, are looking over their shoulder at the Alliance.
The Alliance have grown in percentage terms since 1998, although there is evidence that Alliance voters lent their votes to Trimble’s UUP. This is most certainly the case in Upper Bann in 2001. In fact, it was believed that Peter Robinson would have been ‘toppled’ sooner in 2001 if Sir Reg Empey of the UUP, then a high profile Minister in the newly established NI Executive, had stood for the seat, taking it on ‘borrowed’ Alliance votes.
However when in 2007 Naomi Long entered the political fold for Alliance she was believed to have a struggle on her hands in order to retain the Alliance seat previously held by John Alderdice. Nevertheless, she pulled through and some three years later became the MP for the area.
East Belfast has never been a safe or guaranteed Unionist seat per se, although it is undoubtedly Unionist. Peter Robinson’s largest majority was seen in 2005, in excess of 5,000 votes. Naomi has a majority of 1,500 odd. I do however expect this to grow. This is for two reasons. The first is that those ‘middle class’ unionists will only remember the violence and ensuing bother in their area. The flag is not that important to them; yes, they are British, but never sought or seek to rock the boat. Unionism, by and large, only seeks peace, and with Sinn Fein/IRA ‘buying’ into the arrangements (although I do not necessarily believe that this is the case, but nevertheless believe that the Union is safe regardless of who is in power) they are content.
Secondly, we have seen the PUP emerge, or re-emerge, out of all of this. The raised profile of their new member, Jonny Harvey, from East Belfast provides the PUP with a candidate capable of either winning an Assembly seat (and there are enough PUP votes in the constituency) or coming close. The PUP Leader, Billy Hutchinson, has told Mark Davenport of the BBC that he is not interested in fielding a joint Unionist candidate in East Belfast. I think that even if Unionism does do this it could backfire, however. A PUP candidate could therefore upset the Unionist vote enough to allow Naomi a clear run past the finish line. Remember 3,000 odd people voted TUV in 2010. If TUV had not stood and at least half of those voters voted Robinson, Peter Robinson would have been home and dry.
The PUP chances could also be good in North Belfast, if (and it is likely) Billy Hutchinson stands once again for a seat he lost in 2003. The PUP could ultimately gain a lot out of the upheaval and anger vented over the flag by encouraging young people to register to vote and vote, something that is not natural to them. The losers out of all of this are anyone’s guess, but surely those of the DUP and UUP are set to lose votes and possibly seats.
The DUP is the likely loser, holding three seats in both constituencies of North and East Belfast. However, as Michael Copeland is the sole UUP MLA in Belfast, representing the East of the City, he is at risk, but holds respect from those within the working class loyalist community from the work he does on the ground (a factor in his loss of his seat in the 2007 Assembly election).
I do not believe that the DUP, UUP, PUP or Alliance are to lose or gain anything as a result of the protests outside of the Belfast; but the saga may well alter some voting patterns among the community as a whole. The SDLP for example could face a squeeze as the protests and ensuing trouble is likely to polarise the Nationalist/Republican community and unite them around Sinn Fein. This is the case in North Belfast making DUP Deputy Leader, Nigel Dodds MP’s task of retaining his seat even more difficult that it would have been.
Nationalists of all persuasions and class could opt for Kelly as a viable alternative to ‘rid’ them of a Unionist. This is not just in response to the flag protests but the aftermath of the incident involving the Young Conway Volunteers (YCV) on the 12th day in 2012 outside St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church. The Unionist community in North Belfast need to bear this in mind as once the seat is lost it is gone for ever. However, previously, I would have given Nigel Dodds a ‘best before’ date of 2020 given the changes occurring in a ever divided and ever polarised constituency. If the new boundary changes had been applied in 2015 Nigel would have faced less of a challenge.
In summary, while these are not concrete conclusions and more mere suggestions/predictions, we are seeing a shift in the Unionist community with working classes feeling left out of the political system and forgotten about and a middle class Unionist community feeling dismayed by the attitude and behaviour of some of their politicians. Violence, protest and chaos is not viewed tastefully within this section of the Unionist family. Taking all of the above into account, Peter Robinson and the DUP have a difficult task ahead of them in order to strike the right balance.
This is all against a back drop of increasing economic uncertainty, unemployment and a recession that is likely to hit the ten year anniversary. The new generations will feel forgotten about when it comes to jobs and opportunities regardless of spin and no matter how much public money is thrown at useless PR exercises allowing companies and firms to set up camp in Northern Ireland effectively for free in order to save face and present a false economy. Flags do not necessarily matter to these young people when compared to the ability to live and work to the standard they expected to have before and after University.
So, there are so many uncertainties, no certain answers, and a failure and fear of making decisions in case you upset one voter base or the other. All of this only goes to undermine Stormont whose purpose and very existence rests on the basis of retaining peace and a level of law and order rather than economic regeneration, a policy area which was suspended under Terrence O’Neill in order to deal with the mayhem that ensued in 1968 and lasted under the mid-1990s.
Difficult choices face those ‘up on the hill’, decisions need to be taken, pride needs to be swallowed and anxiety levels reduced in order to resolve the issues that have dominated society for far too long. If these decisions are not taken and a balance restored, Stormont, as a project, is doomed to failure and faces a major loss of credibility.Share on Facebook