The close Robinson-Long result proved NI has a huge moderate pro-Union vote

Gavin Robinson was victorious over Naomi Long in East Belfast.
Gavin Robinson was victorious over Naomi Long in East Belfast.

The ongoing disintegration of NI21 this week and the closing of the year makes it a good time to reflect on a huge political event in 2015.

In May Northern Ireland had one of the most significant election results in its history – and one that vindicated the concept of NI21, even though that party failed.

The East Belfast Westminster result might not at first have seemed significant. The party returned to a unionist as expected after a single candidate was agreed. But the outcome was so close as to raise questions about the appeal of unionism to a swathe of greater Belfast voters.

Some commentators have previously wondered if there really is a large moderate unionist vote, and if so where it is. It is a good question, but I have no doubt such a group is hundreds of thousands strong. East Belfast is a rare time it has come to the polls in large numbers (the 1998 referendum on the Belfast Agreement was another).

As traditional unionism sticks to rigid social conservatism, the group gets bigger.

We are now entering an interesting political phase, in which the existing structure of the parties in Northern Ireland does not properly reflect modern society – and the main parties know this. Ironically for unionism, it doesn’t reflect the increasing (and surprising) success of the entity Northern Ireland.

Many people who are now unhesitatingly Northern Irish and pro-Union are uninterested in Orangeism or the traditional Protestant faith.

The resulting political confusion is seen in the Ulster Unionist Party, which is at times liberal, at times hardline. The uncertainty is spreading to the DUP (albeit under the surface of that controlled party) as it sees how NI is changing on issues such as same sex relations.

Not only is there overwhelming support for the sort of abortion reforms in extreme cases that the DUP opposes, some surveys suggest significant support for early abortions on demand.

The recent BBC-RTE poll on Stephen Nolan implied that roughly a third of NI Protestants are irreligious, a third slightly religious, and a third regular churchgoers. Such findings should be no surprise, yet unionist parties act as if Protestants are 98 per cent regular churchgoers.

Examine the change in East Belfast. It had always had at least a two-to-one split combined Unionist (with a capital U) over Alliance:

• 1983 27,273 to 9,373

• 1992 20,693 to 10,650

• 1997 26,526 to 9,288

• 2010 20,467 to 12,839

• 2015 19,575 to 16,978

Some election experts misread what was happening in East Belfast this year and predicted Naomi would not even match her 2010 tally. But she sailed past it as previous non voters flocked to the polls once they saw she could win (turnout rose 5,200 votes).

Both Peter and Gavin Robinson seriously misjudged the mood in the constituency with Peter’s “dry your eyes” taunt to Naomi after a single candidate was agreed, and Gavin (more perplexingly given the narrow result) in his crowing acceptance speech.

Their confidence was misplaced. If victory for a single unionist had been so certain then the DUP could have run a hardliner from its loyalist-fundamentalist wing. Had it been foolish enough to do so, only 1,300 moderate unionists switching to Naomi would have eliminated the 2,600 DUP margin.

Despite his speech, Gavin remains a future DUP leader. He learns and usually gets the tone right (on a West Belfast festival platform with Jeremy Corbyn he withstood jeering to defend skilfully the right of Orangemen to walk past Ardoyne, no mean feat in front of such an audience).

The logic of the rise of moderates is problematic for all parties, most of all the UUP. Logic dictates a merger with the DUP, now the latter has changed and the two are ideologically so close. But logic also dictates a vehicle to replace NI21, with much support from the UUP.

This would mean the UUP going two ways and its disappearance – which won’t happen. Parties rarely dissolve themselves, and it is doing rather well, even attracting the sort of young people you might see in a group like NI21.

It was hubris of the DUP to be so confident that the flag saga would hurt Naomi. If anything, it helped her among those unionists who ultimately linked it to thuggery.

But there is no comfort for nationalists in much of this. The growing moderates are, I suspect, mostly people who would have seen the Union flag removal as Sinn Fein shenanigans, and who would consider the flag flying on designated days a reasonable reflection of the constitutional position, as enshrined by the very 1998 deal that last brought them to the polls in force.

The failure of moderate nationalism – the SDLP – to appeal to this huge non sectarian centrist bloc of voters mirrors the failure of unionism. One is seen as Catholic and tribally Irish and the other is seen as Protestant and tribally British. These are voters whose first identity is not their religion and who coalesce around a common Northern Irishness. They might instinctively support the Northern Ireland football team but spurn flag waving.

Reflecting on the successes of Lady Sylvia Hermon and Naomi Long in 2010, the electoral expert Nicholas Whyte wrote in this newspaper that “the word unionist is going to be increasingly a turn-off” in pro Union areas around Belfast.

The party that cracks that alienated group of voters will reap handsome dividends.

• Ben Lowry is News Letter deputy editor