Ruth Dudley Edwards: Recent elections have brought change but not much of it looks good for the Shinners

Post-election, I’m one of the cheerful unionists. There may not be many of us, but there should certainly be more than usual.
Michelle Gildernew failed to win a seat in the European election, where the party’s share of the vote was down to 11%Michelle Gildernew failed to win a seat in the European election, where the party’s share of the vote was down to 11%
Michelle Gildernew failed to win a seat in the European election, where the party’s share of the vote was down to 11%

It helps that the shine has so come off Sinn Fein since the local and EU elections that only the very gullible are swallowing their claim to have triumphed in the general election.

The pro-republican Guardian, as usual, did its best with the headline “Sinn Fein becomes Northern Ireland’s biggest Westminster party” over a photo of several middle-aged women posing like rejoicing A-level students. Conor Murphy MP told the BBC the results “showed an electoral trend in support of Irish unity” and that “the change that’s happening” means there must be dialogue about the region’s constitutional future”.

What change?

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Well, there is some, but not much of it looks good for the Shinners.

Down south, in the local elections, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were tied at 23% each, with SF tumbling to 12%; in the Euros, they were down to 11%.

Simon Harris, the new taoiseach, is relatively untried, but he’s young, energetic, confident and fresh-thinking and is wiping the floor with Mary Lou McDonald, who more and more looks like yesterday’s woman.

The latest poll down south (Ireland Thinks in the Sunday Independent) showed SF dropping into third place after Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. In its list of 16 most important priorities, housing and immigration led with respectively 58% and 29%. The Russian-Ukrainian war is bottom, with 1%.

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A united Ireland? It wasn’t even on the list. The south thinks it has troubles enough in coping with migration and overcrowding without taking on any more.

I’ve enjoyed seeing the Ulster Protestant dislike of braggarts finally seeing off the DUP’s Ian Paisley. Swagger and a sense of entitlement did it for him. He appeared to believe himself untouchable.

He was visibly staggered that the electorate chose instead Jim Allister, whose worst enemies never accused of being idle, unprincipled and luxury-loving.

Mr Allister will be missed at Stormont, but his outstanding gifts as an advocate for the good people of Ulster whatever their religion will make ministers squirm at Westminster.

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I was glad to see Naomi Long - whose self-regard has become hard to bear – seen off by the thoroughly decent DUP’s Gavin Robinson. It was not a good look that she chose to decline an invitation to meet Hilary Benn, the new Northern Ireland Secretary, with other party leaders on Saturday because she was not prepared to abandon her planned tip to Wimbledon.

Sinn Fein had seven seats and they still have seven seats. Their too-clever-by-half electoral strategy of forcing Michelle Gildernew to resign as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone and become an MEP - which she couldn’t do - lost them a well-regarded woman. Yes, Pat Cullen, imposed by HQ at short notice, was successful, but she neither lives in the constituency nor, apparently, intends to do so. And she has alienated all non-Shinner opinion by refusing to condemn the murders by the IRA, even of nurses.

She’s also very grand.

“I don’t normally blow my own trumpet, but for the past two years, I’ve been voted as one of the top 100 women in Westminster, and I never sat on a green bench to get there,” she explained to the media.

“What I did was, I brought them to my table and made sure that they delivered for the nurses, and that’s what I’ll do for the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

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“I will bring them to my table and I’ll make sure I will continue with that influence,” added Ms Cullen, who had quit with what seems like disgracefully short notice her highly influential job as the Royal College of Nursing’s chief executive. Who will be listening to her now?

Well, if Conor Murphy is to be believed, she will be welcome in Downing Street, for - as he explained in a leaked report - he was hopeful that Prime Minister Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, who is of Irish immigrant stock and knows Northern Ireland well, will be of help. “I think at least we have a friend in court, so we can certainly have access [via] that directly to Downing Street.”

The cautious Sir Keir knows enough of Northern Ireland to spot this makes it harder to establish trust with unionists, especially considering Sue Gray’s son - a longtime leader in the Labour Irish Society - is one of the new Labour MPs.

Both Starmer and Gray will need to be very, very careful to show no nationalist bias.