Denzil McDaniel: How is unionism losing its power? Gradually, then suddenly

Former DUP MP Ian Paisley jnr lost his North Antrim seat last week. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

Former DUP MP Ian Paisley jnr lost his North Antrim seat last week. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

A CHARACTER in Ernest Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises” is asked how he went bankrupt. “Two ways,” he replies. “Gradually, then suddenly.”

It’s a thought-provoking turn of phrase often used about the process of change, and may well be applied to the results of the Westminster elections.

In Northern Ireland, the results across many of the 18 constituencies felt like something of a moment in history.

Sinn Féin became the largest party at Westminster, the Assembly and council level. The DUP lost three seats, including to TUV leader Jim Allister in the Paisley family stronghold of North Antrim and to the Alliance in Lagan Valley.

And with the Labour landslide victory in Britain, this election will have an impact like no other.

Change has context: 60 years ago Northern Ireland returned 12 MPs to Westminster, all of them unionist.

Throughout years of conflict, demographic and boundary changes, unionism slowly began to lose its dominance.

Still, even by 2017 the DUP won 10 seats and found themselves holding the balance of power at Westminster. Leader Arlene Foster and North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds, along with party colleagues Jeffrey Donaldson, Ian Paisley, Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell cut a deal with the Conservatives.

A mere seven years on, an RHI scandal and disastrous Brexit deal later, the DUP now has five seats with its vote share down to 22 per cent. Foster and Dodds are in the House of Lords; Donaldson and Paisley are gone, and two of the remaining big beasts, Campbell and Wilson find themselves with much-reduced majorities.

The success story of this election has been Sinn Féin. They retained all seven of their seats with increased majorities and turned the usually marginal Fermanagh-South Tyrone into a safe seat. From a majority of just 57, Pat Cullen increased it to 4,571.

Despite standing aside in four constituencies they increased their share of the vote to 27 per cent and look well placed to challenge strongly for further seats in the future.

Unionists have argued that over time the combined vote for nationalism hasn’t increased but has coalesced around Sinn Féin, and that unionism’s total vote of 43% still outstrips nationalism’s 40%.

It would be wrong for their opponents to dismiss unionism as somehow a spent force.

But unionism itself faces a major challenge to remain relevant.

The early signs are that unionism will continue to focus on short-termism to fix the issues of electoral failure. Four different strands of unionism will now be represented at Westminster and the subject of unionist unity has already been blamed for some loss of seats. There was some irony in Sammy Wilson calling out the “shame” of other unionists challenging the DUP.

As such, unionist unity is a pipe dream with so many different strands unable to come together.

Denzil McDaniel

Denzil McDaniel

There is also the challenge to unionism from the solid centre ground.

For unionism to remain relevant, it needs to show a vision to people gravitating towards Alliance, or indeed becoming disillusioned with the political system and not voting at all.

Turnout in this election dropped by 4.6% to just 57.4%, which means that well over half a million people out of an electorate of 1.3m didn’t vote.

There was something remarkable in a relieved DUP MP Gregory Campbell, saying: “We are living in changeable and changing times.”

It remains to be seen if unionism as a whole has grasped that everything has changed, changed utterly.

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