Well, that was a surprise. I had written off any chance of excitement in NI last night, and then Naomi Long goes and unseats Peter Robinson. A well-deserved victory for her, and a rare blow against the Developer’s Unionist Party.
In other news, UCUNF crashes and burns, as most unbiased commentators expected it would. News has just reached me that even their semi-detached unity candidate in Fermanagh South Tyrone has been beaten by a hair’s breadth (four votes!) on the third recount. A case of the right candidate on the wrong platform perhaps?
So what next for Unionism? Peter Robinson aside, the DUP have proved they can’t be beaten at their own game. Reg Empey is a dead man walking, his (and Trimble’s) grand strategy in tatters. It is glaringly obvious that the Conservative Party simply doesn’t know how to sell itself to the Scots/Irish, or doesn’t care enough to try. In Scotland there was actually a swing towards Labour! While there are quite a few local Conservative figures for whom I have a lot of respect (such as the excellent Jeff Peel), the Tory brand is toxic in these parts. Civic-unionist blogs are abuzz with post-mortem analysis today – Ian Parsley even goes so far as to admit that:
the only “pacts” that matter are cross-community ones, ideally founded on a candidate with a reputation for hard work locally.
By wilfully limiting its cross-community appeal to the Lesser Spotted Catholic Unionist, and promptly scaring them off by flirting with Unionist unity, UCUNF failed miserably on that score. David McNarry, live on the BBC, wasted no time in declaring his preference for Unionist unity, which in current circumstances means a buy-out of the UUP by the DUP. With Robinson gone, the way is clear for Arlene Foster to lead a united ticket into the Assembly elections next year.
Where this leaves the civic unionists is unclear. If they don’t get themselves organised quickly they could disappear under the waves. I have argued before that the logical replacement for the UUP is a broadly centre-right movement which treats the Border issue as a matter of individual conscience. Since neither MPs nor MLAs have any say on constitutional change, the only thing preventing such a realignment is a failure of imagination.
With Unionist unity a near-inevitability, there is little time to lose. There is a huge gap on the centre-right of nationalism, one which is badly served by the left-wing rhetoric of the SDLP. There are even (whisper it) a few economically right-wing Shinners (see Ulster’s Doomed for a prime example). Fianna Fáil is hungrily eyeing this demographic as I type. If the civics are to survive, they need to ditch their attachment to the U-word.