As this blog expected, the result of the Castlereagh East by-election – to replace the disgraced (and now rarely mentioned) Iris Robinson – which took place on the same day as the Westminster election, has barely been mentioned in the media.
As anticipated, the DUP won the seat with its photogenic but loyalist-paramilitary-linked candidate. Their share of the vote, though, dropped considerably: from 59.2% in 2005 to 39.2% this year. Admittedly a lot of the 2005 vote was Iris Robinson’s personal vote – on her own she got over 27% of the vote.
The threat from the TUV evaporated in Castlereagh, as it did elsewhere in the Westminster election. In Castlereagh they got 8.2% of the vote – barely more than the UDA-linked Frankie Gallagher got in 2005 (7.1%). Maybe they were the same voters? In fact the TUV got fewer votes than even the Green candidate – and came bottom of the poll.
The ever-hopeful, but clearly hopeless, Hazel Legge managed to shrink the UUP vote, from 18.9% in 2005 to 15.9% this year. Legge is/was a full-time party worker and clearly someone in the UUP likes her, but that doesn’t really appear to carry much weight with the voters.
The big winner in Castlereagh East was Alliance. The Alliance candidate won 26.1% of the vote, up from only 12.4% in 2005. The council by-election covered part of the East Belfast Westminster constituency where, of course, Alliance candidate Naomi Long defeated Peter Robinson. Clearly the same swing – on a lesser scale – was evident in Castlereagh East, but not enough to win the seat. If the Alliance vote stays stable, though, it should pick up at least one additional council seat (if the next council elections are to the existing councils, as seems increasingly likely).
Even the Greens did well in Castlereagh East, winning 10.5% of the vote. With a little help (i.e. transfers) from other candidates they could be in the running for a seat here too next time.
The turnout this year was almost identical to that in 2005 – 55.1% this year, 55.5% in 2005 – so the changes cannot really be ascribed to that. It seems that a lot of the unionist vote that went to the DUP simply deserted the party - but not to go to the dead-enders of the TUV, or even to the 'new force' of the UUP. Bizarrely, the ‘extremists’ of the DUP shifted their allegiances to parties that most would see as the antithesis of DUP hard-line unionism. Most observers would have expected a protest against the ‘swish family Robinson’ to lead to a swing to the right, or at least to stay within the unionist block. For the ‘centre’ block to benefit so dramatically – from 12.4% in 2005 to 36.6% this year – is almost unheard of in Northern Irish politics.
This result, minor and forgettable as it is, points towards some seismic changes in political allegiances in Northern Ireland. It will be necessary to wait until next year to see if the changes are a once-off protest or a structural change. It leaves the outcome of next year’s elections quite open.