The 2010 General Election – A Turning Point for Northern Ireland?


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The dust is still settling on the results over the water, and it’ll be some time before we know the composition of the next UK government. So that’s the subject of another post. However, it was clear straight away that this was an extraordinary election here in Northern Ireland, with a number of pointers towards a different way of doing things in future.

As this was originally posted on East Belfast Diary, I have to start with Northern Ireland’s Portillo moment. Naomi Long ran a highly effective campaign, despite the disingenuous and irritating claim that she was ‘only 52 votes’ behind Peter Robinson. This statistic applied to the last Assembly election, whereas in the 2005 general election she came third, with 3,746 votes compared to Robinson’s poll-topping 15,152 – a distinction that our Alliance canvasser struggled with. She’ll have to work hard to retain the seat, but for now the combination of disgust at the Robinsons’ antics and tactical voting gains from nationalists and the PUP (who didn’t stand) produced the most fantastic result of the night. As an East Belfast resident, I was also pleased because I think the result reflects the changing character of at least some parts of this fascinating constituency.

The East Belfast result, along with the Justice Ministry, strengthens Alliance’s position as a serious political player. But the failure of the UUP/ Conservative partnership to win a single seat has more far-reaching implications, in two ways. First, it raises questions about the future of the UUP. On BBC NI’s election night programme, David McNarry lost no time in putting the boot into Sir Reg, but, more rationally, Arlene Foster talked about unionist ‘realignment’. Although more unionist pacts are an option, I’m beginning to wonder if the UUP will simply fade away, with some members going to the DUP and others to Alliance. Secondly, and of more interest to me personally, is the likely fallout from the link with the Conservatives. It shows the problem with trying to merge territorial politics with a left – right continuum. I suspect that the Tory version of the experience will be ‘it’s a nightmare, don’t go there’. It’ll make UK Labour Party involvement in NI elections even less likely, but if they do come in, it’ll be on their own rather than in coalition with a local party.

My final point is about the role of NI’s MPs in a hung Parliament. We have eight unionist MPs, three nationalists taking their seat; one Alliance and one unionist Independent who is known to have Labour sympathies. All plan to make strategic choices to maximise the benefits to Northern Ireland in the new Parliament, or rather, in reality, to minimise the damage. Although this approach sometimes came across in the election campaign as irritatingly parochial, it’s also a unifying factor. In particular, it may be that the SDLP, Alliance and Lady Sylvia find they have a lot in common. Cross-party working at Westminster could help to create an environment in which we can move to a voluntary coalition in the Assembly, and start to discuss more creative ways of working together in the new local councils.

These three aspects of the 2010 NI general election are extremely significant. Together, they indicate the possible beginning of a restructuring of NI politics that might begin to move us away from the domination of the territorial issue and the sectarian carve-up – I am being very tentative here. A stronger ‘middle ground’ party; a realignment of unionism; and new partnerships at Westminster in the interest of all Northern Ireland’s people. Moving away from ethnic politics may start to look like less of a bonkers idea than previously.

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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

4 Responses

  1. Michael Burke

    May 10, 2010 9:13 am

    A truly remarkable analysis.

    Not least beause the words Sinn Fein do not feature in it, despite the fact they held 5 seats and are now the single largest party in the North.

    It has always been a tactic of Unionism to airbrush nationalists and Republicans out of the political picture. But it becomes farcical when it disfigures supposedly objective analysis.

    A more honest accounting of political trends in the North is required.

  2. Jenny Muir

    May 10, 2010 11:00 am

    I have mentioned Sinn Fein in other posts both here on ILR and on my own blog, East Belfast Diary. But the reason they are not mentioned here is that I don’t think the results have any implications for SF. There are implications for their constituents if their absence lets in a Tory dominated coalition, but that is a matter for them and for the voters.

    And let me repeat yet again that I am not a unionist. The Pavlovian reaction by republicans to the words ‘East Belfast’ always amazes me. I’d be really annoyed about it if I lived in the Short Strand.

  3. Michael Burke

    May 10, 2010 12:14 pm

    Unionism is a political characterisation, not a geographic designation. There were 1,182 Nationalist votes in East Belfast and 33,000 votes for parties that support the Union.

    In 5 of the seats SF won, 3 of its nearest rivals were from parties who are either prepared to support the Tories, or, in 1 case, actually a Tory. We shall see in coming days who helps a Tory-dominated coalition, but it won’t have been made possible by any action from SF.

  4. Jenny Muir

    May 10, 2010 7:35 pm

    Nothing that happens in the Westminster Parliament is made possible by any action from SF because they choose not to attend. The only impact they have had in this election is to lower the number at which a coalition will have enough seats to form a government. That’s why they are not part of my post, which isn’t about how many votes the parties got but about what the implications might be for NI politics. And I think there’s a general acceptance that some of Naomi Long’s votes came from nationalists voting tactically.

    However I do find your subsequent post useful as it provides the numbers and reminds us just how many people are prepared to vote for a party that won’t represent them on important issues such as the constitution, tax, benefits and immigration. I also think we might agree that unionism is about to undergo interesting big changes which will include marginalising the TUV, good news on that front at any rate.