Neil McCarthy: Reasons why unionists should not be gloomy over results of the general election

​That unionists don’t seem to know when they have won is an observation that has been made on more than one occasion in the past.
Independent unionist Alex Easton pulled off a spectacular gain for unionism when he caused an upset by unseating Alliance's Stephen Farry in North Down in last week's general electionIndependent unionist Alex Easton pulled off a spectacular gain for unionism when he caused an upset by unseating Alliance's Stephen Farry in North Down in last week's general election
Independent unionist Alex Easton pulled off a spectacular gain for unionism when he caused an upset by unseating Alliance's Stephen Farry in North Down in last week's general election

It was expressed most pithily when academic Paul Bew wrote in the Sunday Times in 1998 (just after the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement) that “unionists are too stupid to realise they have won, and republicans are too clever to admit they have lost”.

Last week’s general election results in Northern Ireland are no exception to this observation. Despite clear positives for unionism, there is an air of gloom emanating from much unionist commentary.

What are those positives?

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Neil McCarthy is a writer and teacher based in Dublin and LondonNeil McCarthy is a writer and teacher based in Dublin and London
Neil McCarthy is a writer and teacher based in Dublin and London

Firstly, unionism’s vote share went up in this election compared to the last Westminster election in 2019.

Secondly, it has maintained (in fact very slightly increased) its lead over the combined nationalist vote.

Thirdly, Sinn Féin only managed to hold on to its existing tally of seven seats from 2019 and has consequently made no gains.

Lastly, the great Alliance surge failed to materialise. They were unable to topple Gavin Robinson in East Belfast, despite all three unionist parties contesting the seat, and Stephen Farry actually lost his seat in North Down, when he was considered to be a shoe-in. Alliance also failed to make a widely anticipated gain in Strangford. It should be noted that all three unionist parties contested Strangford; and in North Down two out of the three unionist parties were effectively contesting the seat. The ongoing narrative that unionism is fatally splintered and thereby ceding seats simply did not hold up. On the contrary, competition within unionism got the vote out and encouraged unionist voters to think strategically.

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If that’s a disastrous election for unionism, it must have led a sheltered existence!

It is true that unionism lost a seat to Alliance in Lagan Valley and it is also true that if all the votes cast for the three unionist parties in that constituency are added up then the total is greater than the number of votes that Alliance received. To which the answer should be: so what? If one big unionist party had stood instead of three, many UUP voters might have voted Alliance or simply stayed at home. And this one seat loss to unionism was offset by unionism’s spectacular gain in North Down.

So-called unionist disunity allowed for the proper working through of differences within unionism in this election – another positive. The broad church party of the DUP, the Fianna Fáil of unionism, was bloodied but remains very much unbowed, and crucially has not split. Unionist dissidents with regard to the Irish Sea border have scored a famous victory with Jim Allister’s win in North Antrim. The dissidents are now on the pitch, which is good for democracy. And the UUP, the crucial liberal unionist buffer best placed to prevent unionists defecting to Alliance, has been buoyed up by the success of Robin Swann. All of this shows vitality and health within unionism.

In 2017 nationalist commentator Chris Donnelly wrote of nationalism’s increased vote share in the assembly election of that year - after a period of seeming electoral decline - as being driven by “a renewed sense of rivalry and electoral engagement by nationalists” in the context of Sinn Féin and the SDLP both upping their game. The same commentator used to argue that further competition for the nationalist vote via southern parties coming into Northern Ireland would be good for nationalism and boost rather than diminish its overall vote share.

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The positives for unionism in this election show that increased competition is equally good for its cause and overall share of the vote. What has been a difficult election for the DUP has not been a difficult election for unionism as a whole, quite the opposite in fact.

This perspective is not the one that you will generally read in the media, especially unionist media, and not the one you will hear from many unionists. This is more to do with what an exasperated Tony Blair said in January 2002 to a meeting of church leaders in Belfast, to wit that in Northern Ireland, people focussed “on the bad without taking the good into account”, than with any objective account of unionist fortunes.

Missing from the list of positives above is the biggest positive of all for unionism to have come out of recent electoral contests on the island of Ireland: the collapse in Sinn Féin’s vote in the Republic. That this is a continuing reality is shown in the latest opinion poll published by the Irish Independent the other day showing overall support for Sinn Féin at only 18 per cent.

This means the end of Sinn Féin’s united Ireland project for the foreseeable future.

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The only poll that will ever really matter in relation to the constitution in Northern Ireland will be any future border poll. The figures there have moved little in the last 25 years.

Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is guaranteed by the consent principle.

Any swings and roundabouts in Northern Ireland elections are in the end rendered almost irrelevant by compulsory powersharing at Stormont, which means that Sinn Féin is now trapped in its northern redoubt. Becoming Northern Ireland’s biggest party at Westminster does nothing to change that.

All unionists have to do is do politics, lots of it, and enjoy the competition.

​l Neil McCarthy is a writer and teacher based in Dublin and London