Analysis: UUP on upward trajectory

Mike Nesbitt celebrates Tom Elliott's win over Michelle Gildernew
Mike Nesbitt celebrates Tom Elliott's win over Michelle Gildernew

The SNP obliteration of Scottish Labour puts the future of the UK state at the centre of Westminster politics and raises major challenges for all the unionist MPs and their parties.

However, their morale, particularly that of the UUP, will be high after what has been the best Westminster result for unionism since 1992.

Henry Patterson

Henry Patterson

What Sinn Fein referred to as the ‘green tide’ sweeping them to power in both Irish states has been stemmed in Northern Ireland.

This is particularly the case for border unionists with Tom Elliott’s defeat of Sinn Fein in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

An Phoblacht said holding the constituency was to be the main focus of their campaign and the prospect of the former UDR soldier taking the issue of the IRA’s sectarian border to Westminster will be welcomed by terror victims.

The clear winner on the unionist side has been Mike Nesbitt as the UUP has been confirmed on the upward trajectory first apparent in the local elections. Danny Kinahan is precisely the sort of smart, energetic and liberal unionist MP that will strengthen unionism’s engagement with mainstream British politics.

The DUP, despite losing South Antrim, will be relieved to have held off the UUP challenge in Upper Bann and to win back East Belfast, albeit with the help of the pact with the UUP. The spectacular Conservative victory means that party’s grander hopes of a king-maker role will have to be jettisoned. However, they and other unionist MPs will not be without influence. In the Financial Times, the former Cabinet Secretary, Gus O Donnell, predicted that over the next five years, David Cameron, despite his sensational victory, will often be looking back wistfully on his coalition with the Lib-Dems which gave him a large majority.

Without it the coalition would have been unable to implement five years of austerity.

Now he is committed to at least two more years of an intensified squeeze on public expenditure together with very difficult EU negotiations leading to a referendum, and he also has to respond to the SNP’s deliberately provocative demands for a massive devolution of new powers to Edinburgh.

These are major contentious issues and with a smallish majority key votes could be a struggle for the Prime Minister. Unionists may not be king-makers but they will be very far from the powerless cyphers on the green benches that Martin McGuinness claimed during the campaign.

O’Donnell speculated that Treasury officials may soon be nervous about the price the DUP might seek to extract for their support in key divisions. There is nothing wrong in unionist MPs trying to get the best economic deal for Northern Ireland but they need to avoid the populist temptation to line up with the SNP in demanding more money and fiscal powers from London.

Already from Guardian columnists to Boris Johnson the argument is being made that to save the Union Cameron has to agree to a new federal structure for the UK.

This ignores the epochal shift that has occurred in Scotland. The SNP are not interested in some new constitutional architecture keeping Scotland in the UK. Their eager allies in Northern Ireland are Sinn Fein who also want more powers and more money. A politically serious unionism should be able to make a serious contribution to the development of the Government’s policy on these fundamental issues.

The question for unionists is not whether or not they will have leverage on the Government but whether it amounts to more than producing the begging bowl.

Henry Patterson is Emeritus Professor of Irish Politics at Ulster University