Friday 15 February 2008

Lord Laird's interest in rugby

A letter in today's Belfast Telegraph draws attention to the recent storm-in-a-teacup that John Laird (ex Stormont MP, made a lord for God-knows what reason) has been trying to stir up.

In a nut-shell, Laird is trying to insist that the Irish rugby team, whenever it plays in Belfast, should play under the British flag, and sing the British national anthem. His point appears to be that the Irish team represents two jurisdictions, one of which remains part of the UK, and that this fact is not being given adequate recognition.

But is this really his point? Is his gripe really about recognition of British symbols, or is he trying to use an ostensibly reasonable issue to further a longer-term political objective?

If Laird was a reasonable man, he might call upon the two ministers responsible for sport in Ireland to come together, under the north-south arrangements already in place, to discuss the creation of new and neutral symbols that all Irish sports fans could unite under. In that way, a common identity could be created for rugby, cricket, hockey, athletics, and other sports organised on an all-Ireland basis. And who knows, maybe even soccer a bit further down the line. If he made this suggestion, he would be pushing against an open (or at least unlocked) door in the south.

But Laird does not suggest the creation of neutral all-Ireland symbols. Instead he tries to insist on British symbols, knowing that they are unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of players and supporters of most sports organised on an all-Ireland basis. He is doing this in the knowledge that such a demand is unacceptable to the majority, because he is counting on that resistance, so that he then can call for the partition of the sporting bodies, and thus contribute even more to the partition of the country.

Laird's interest is not sport – he is on record (BBC radio Talkback programme) as saying, when asked if he supported the Ireland rugby team or the Scotland rugby team, that he unequivocally supported Scotland. His interest, as it is on so many other issues, is as far as possible to divide the north from the south, and to obstruct all areas where north-south cooperation and co-existence are the norm. He is a wall-builder rather than a bridge-builder.

So far, happily, the IRFU, the governing body of Irish rugby, has largely ignored his provocation.

Jim Allister's future

The council by-election in Dromore on Wednesday 13 February can be seen either as a victory for Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice party (who successfully blocked their arch-rivals, the DUP, from winning), or as a defeat (they did not win the election).

However, at council level, and perhaps more widely in Northern Ireland, the TUV is essentially a protest movement – protesting in the short term against the DUP-Sinn Féin coalition that holds the top jobs in the executive, but also protesting in the long term against all compromises with nationalism (one description of the TUV is that it is the party for those who miss the B Specials).

For its founder and chief spokesman, Jim Allister, the success or failure of the TUV has a more direct importance. Because he is an MEP, elected to the European Parliament in 2004 as the DUP candidate, and as chosen successor to Ian Paisley. His whole political future now rests on the support that he can muster via the TUV. Before he established the party there was a chance that he could remain as an independent unionist MEP, slightly critical of the DUP, but from the same political family. Now that he has set up a party specifically to target the DUP, he is prey.

So the performance of the TUV gives a foresight of the support that Allister will get in 2009 when his seat is up for re-election.

In Dromore the TUV received 19,6% of the vote, but this was not a representative area. Dromore is much more unionist than the average, with 72% of its electorate voting for one or other unionist candidate, against a Northern Ireland-wide figure of 48,7% in the 2007 Assembly election. Admittedly, in European Parliament elections, with only three seats at stake, voters tend to concentrate on electable candidates, as the minor parties and independents have no chance at all. But even in the last European Parliament elections the unionist total only reached 48,6%.

So if Allister can only attract 27% of the unionists of Dromore (i.e. 19,6% of 72%), he may have trouble in 2009. If he gets the same proportion of unionist votes then, he will barely achieve 13% of the total vote (i.e. 27% of 48,6%). And on that low percentage, he is likely to be eliminated early, as the four main parties will probably all receive more than that. If the bad blood between Allister and the DUP continues to fester, his voters may not transfer in sufficient numbers to carry the other two unionist parties beyond the SDLP candidate, and hence one of them (the UUP, probably) will be the next to be eliminated, leaving Northern Ireland with two nationalist MEPs for the first time ever. The psychological value to nationalism and the damage to unionism, of sending 2 nationalists and one unionist to Strasbourg cannot be underestimated. Allister may turn out to be an important nail in unionism's coffin.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Banbridge District Council By-Election – Dromore DEA, 13 February 2008 – the result

The by-election in Dromore DEA (part of Banbridge District Council area) on 13 February threw up a few surprises, of which the result was not the least!

In an area where the DUP had collected almost 50% of the votes at the 2005 District Council elections, and thus should have had little trouble winning the seat this time, they were beaten. The UUP's Carol Black took advantage of the split extreme-unionist vote to come through and retain the seat vacated by her party colleague Trevor Howe, who had resigned.

The main interest in the election was, of course, the performance of Jim Allister's new Traditional Unionist Voice, and how it would affect the DUP. And affect it, it did! The DUP scored 28,3% of the first-preference votes, down 21,5% from their 2005 score. The TUV picked up 19,6% – almost exactly the amount that the DUP lost. While other factors may have played a small part, the unavoidable conclusion is that a large chunk of the DUP vote abandoned it, and moved over to the uncompromising old-style tribal unionism of the TUV. In a sense, the TUV has done to the DUP what the DUP previously did to the UUP. By providing a place even further to the right, it could snipe at everything the DUP has done, especially sharing power with the hated nationalists.

The first round of votes went thus (all figures subject to confirmation by the Electoral Office):

DUP: 1069 (28,3%)
UUP: 912 (24,2%)
TUV: 739 (19,6%)
APNI: 357 (9,5%)
SF: 350 (9,3%)
SDLP: 290 (7,7%)
Green: 59 (1,6%)

Round 2: The SDLP and Green candidates were then eliminated, and their votes transferred like this:

DUP: +5 to make: 1074
UUP: +25 to make: 937
TUV: +3 to make: 742
APNI: +122 to make: 479
SF: +157 to make: 507
SDLP ---
Green ---

This round shows two things; firstly that 'moderate' voters find the unionist extremes fairly repellent, and secondly that Sinn Féin is not as transfer unfriendly as previously thought.

Round 3: The elimination of the Alliance Party candidate would normally benefit other 'moderate' parties, but these had already been eliminated, so a large number of transfers reverted to their natural home, the UUP:

DUP: +53 to make: 1127
UUP: +182 to make: 1119
TUV: +59 to make: 801
SF: +60 to make: 567
APNI ---
SDLP ---
Green ---

In this round, unexpectedly, the supposed moderates of the Alliance Party gave the right-wing bigots of the TUV and the DUP 112 transfers. Surprising, also, is the transfer to Sinn Féin, who previously received few if any transfers from the nice middle-class Protestants of the Alliance Party.

Round 4: Having survived miraculously until now, it was Sinn Féin's turn to be eliminated, and with a choice of only three unionist parties for their transfers!

UUP: +75 to make: 1194
DUP: +51 to make: 1178
TUV: +27 to make: 828
SF ---
APNI ---
SDLP ---
Green ---

On the face of it, these transfers are quite odd. However, it is likely that the 414 votes that did not transfer included most of the 'real' (i.e. first round) Sinn Féin votes, and that the transfers were actually votes for other candidates that were simply transiting through Sinn Féin. They favoured the DUP over the two other unionist parties, which is strange if they came from the 'moderate' parties. One would expect them to favour the UUP, but perhaps they were trying to be strategic to stop any possibility of a TUV victory.

Round 5: Now with only the unionist parties left standing, the TUV's turn as kingmaker came. It had to be eliminated, but with only 16 votes separating the other two unionist parties, the breakdown of the TUV transfers decided the outcome. And such was their antipathy for the DUP that they plumped for the UUP, giving Carol Black the seat:

UUP: +377 to make: 1571
DUP: +327 to make: 1505
TUV ---
SF ---
APNI ---
SDLP ---
Green ---

So what overall lessons can Dromore teach us? Firstly, that there is a large part of the DUP electorate that is unhappy with it. The semblance of good-natured cooperation with Sinn Féin sticks in many unionist throats, as indeed it was supposed to have stuck in Ian Paisley's in previous years. To recover these anti-republican votes the DUP will have to start talking and acting tough – but the nature of the mandatory coalition means that their room for manoeuvre is small. They may end up just looking like petulant children. Another option, one that has already been signalled, is that the DUP will decide that it is time to heap all of the blame on Ian Paisley and dump him.

The TUV has done very well, but still remains essentially a protest movement. Whether it maintains its momentum until next year's elections is open to doubt. The DUP will work out a strategy to kill it off, and while the TUV is a one-man party it has few opportunities to argue its case.

On the nationalist side, while Dromore was never going to be a gain for either Sinn Féin or the SDLP, it provided a useful snapshot of their standing in a fairly middle-of-the-road country town. Worryingly for the SDLP, who put in a lot of canvassing before the election, Sinn Féin beat them, thereby strengthening their position as the senior nationalist party. The overall nationalist vote dropped to 17% (from19%), which is not too bad considering that this was a by-election for a single seat that a nationalist could not win.

The Alliance Party, who returned to Dromore's fray for the first time in 10 years, did quite well, taking both unionist and nationalist votes to reach 9,5% of the total. Their votes seem to have come from the SDLP (about 2%) and the UUP (about 7%). This should give their strategists some indication of where to seek gains in the future.

The UUP won the seat, but this was not a victory for them. In 1993 they got 63,5% of the votes in the DEA – in 2008 they got 24,2%. The spoiling tactics of the TUV handed them the seat, but they must know that it is only on loan.

In a previous blog on this election, we said that "if the TUV comes in third, its votes will also benefit the DUP"; but it seems that like many others we underestimated the antipathy of the TUV extreme unionists to the current political arrangements. The TUV, despite losing, will probably have a large impact on the future direction of the DUP, and thus ultimately on the success or failure of the whole Good Friday Agreement implementation.

While this blog is strongly anti-unionist, and relishes the sight of intra-unionist antipathy, vote-splitting and demoralisation, we recognise that the DUP will be unpredictable and therefore dangerous in the next 12 to 18 months. With the unenviable job of replacing Paisley and then facing into a series of elections, the DUP will be like a caged animal. Inevitably, to distract from intra-unionist disputes they will turn their fire on nationalism. It is to be hoped that the loyalist bigots who take their lead from the overall tone of unionist discourse will not feel in any way encouraged to revert to their habitual violence. For nationalism, the period may be a difficult one, but it should remain aware that this period will pass, and when it does, unionism will emerge weaker and nationalism stronger, than at present.

Update, 27 February 2008:

The Electoral Office has published the official result, and these show one tiny difference with respect to the results originally shown above. That difference (+327 to the DUP in the final round, to give a total of 1505) has now been corrected, and the figures above correspond to those of the Electoral Office.