Much will be made in the coming weeks and months of the European Parliamentary Election results, arguments about what was actually voted on and the motivations for those who both voted and didn’t vote.
The EU referendum in Northern Ireland in 2016 had a 62% turnout, resulting in 44% opting for the UK to leave the EU, with 56% for the UK remaining in the EU. Since the decision taken by the whole of the UK to leave the EU in 2016, there has been much focus on Northern Ireland and the issue of the backstop. The question for those seeking a second referendum or a confirmatory vote on any deal is this – has there been any quantifiable change in voter intention from 2016 ‘til now?
In Northern Ireland, of all the candidates saying they respected the decision to Leave their percentage share of the vote was 42.9%. For those wanting to remain it was 57.1%.
With an almost 17% decrease in turnout compared to the referendum, it indicates to me that minds have not been changed – and with a similar pattern in the rest of the UK, it looks as if the division runs just as deep.
Indeed, anecdotally, many leave supporters boycotted this election as they did not want to legitimise it by voting, as it should not have been taking place.
Political unionism has suffered in this election – however, there was no ‘remain’ option on the table for a pro-union voter [Danny Kennedy had voted remain in 2016, but on Thursday stood on a ticket of wanting a ‘sensible Brexit’].
It is evident that this has hurt the UUP, with a section of their core voting for a remain candidate, most likely Alliance.
It also alludes to a strategic weakness within the wider unionist family – it is not representative enough and there is no release valve in the centre ground.
On the upside, the transfer rate across unionist candidates was excellent and this is to be commended and followed in future elections.
The default reaction at times of uncertainty within unionism is this urge for unionist unity. Unity will not preserve the union – understanding that maximising the total unionist vote and extolling the benefits of the union to all people in Northern Ireland will do that. In order to do that you need pro-union parties, distinct from each other, reaching out and representing all facets of society.
That is both the challenge and opportunity for all pro-union parties.
Richard Cairns, TUV vice-chairman, Antrim town