Analysis: Unionists reward choice as nationalist share slips

Jim Nicholson, Ulster Unionist Party, was last night looking to hold onto his Euro seat
Jim Nicholson, Ulster Unionist Party, was last night looking to hold onto his Euro seat

In an election campaign which, until the spectacular implosion of NI21 in the hours ahead of polling was dreary, one of the few points of debate was over the number of pro-Union candidates.

The DUP, which as the dominant unionist party of the last decade has a vested interest in limiting other pro-Union options on ballot papers, has argued that the number of unionist candidates now risks “shredding” the pro-Union vote, in this case possibly allowing the SDLP to take a seat.

On Thursday, a phenomenal array of pro-Union candidates faced voters on ballot papers — from the pro-Union but non-unionist NI21 to the anti-EU UKIP and the hardline TUV, with the DUP, UUP and Tories somewhere in the middle.

The smaller parties argue that if voters transfer to other unionists, those who would otherwise not vote at all eventually give their support to the larger unionist parties. By contrast, Peter Robinson has highlighted the fact that in every PR election there are non-transferable votes which are lost.

Although the election count chaos means that it is not yet clear how all the pro-Union voters transferred their votes, the first preference totals firmly suggest that the three current MEPs will be returned, albeit with the UUP this time coming in behindthe DUP.

However, the share of the vote for pro-Union parties increased from 49 per cent five years ago to 52.6 per cent in this election while the nationalist share of the vote was down from 42.2 per cent to 38.5 per cent.

Although the factors behind such statistics are complex, they bear scrutiny at a time when unionism has had a crisis of self-confidence.

It would appear that the sheer range of pro-Union political offerings — particularly UKIP, which has helped fuel discussion of the EU membership and immigration — has attracted voters in a way which the two established (and increasingly similar) nationalist parties have not done. While Sinn Fein is understandably thrilled with again topping the poll and its success across the island, its gains in Northern Ireland seem to be drawn almost exclusively from former SDLP voters, so the total nationalist vote is unaffected.

While there is truth in the DUP argument that nationalists, with just two main parties, are concentrating their resources, such a duopoly is not conducive to innovation, and can leave voters feeling they are taken for granted.

This election suggests the fact that while pro-Union voters tell unionist parties on the doorsteps about wanting them to all come together, when those people come to vote they actually respond more favourably to competition.

After all, if unionist voters overwhelmingly wanted more unity (or less choice), the logical course of action would be to support the DUP. Many unionists are doing that, but plenty are not.