This morning I had the rather surreal experience of a Benedictine monk greeting me with news of one election result I didn’t expect: the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long had defeated Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson in the election for the Westminster Parliament.
So I’ll have an interesting answer if, in years to come, people ask the question of where were you when you heard that Peter Robinson had been defeated in East Belfast? I was finishing up a silent retreat in a Benedictine monastery, but that was news worth talking about!
Of course, whether or not people do ask that question depends on whether Long’s victory proves to be an expression for a genuine desire for a new way of doing politics in Northern Ireland.
That’s certainly the line Alliance is taking, as party leader David Ford says:
Naomi Long is ushering in a new era in politics in Northern Ireland. She has defeated the leader of the biggest party and the First Minister of Northern Ireland. She has made history and she is a beacon of hope for Northern Ireland. This result is both a triumph for Alliance and for Naomi personally. She fought a positive campaign based on years of hard work for the people of East Belfast.
…This election heralded a change in the emphasis of the campaigning in Northern Ireland. People wanted to see parties showing vision on job creation, uniting our community and building the economy. Alliance has done that while the other parties have focused on tribal pacts. The people of East Belfast have spoken and they have said they want a new politics. Naomi represents a new generation and a bright, shared future for all of Northern Ireland."
But right now, I suspect (as most others probably do) that the result is a personal judgement on and punishment of the character of Robinson and his family.
It is the revolt of an electorate fed up with the Iris Robinson sex scandal, revelations about the Robinsons’ extravagant lifestyle, and suspicions about their dodgy property deals.
There was, of course, speculation that the DUP vote would drift to Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). David Vance, the TUV candidate in East Belfast, did garner 1,850 votes, trailing in behind Long (12,839), Robinson (11,306) and the Ulster Unionists’ Trevor Ringland (7,305).
Those 1,850 votes doubtless wounded Robinson. But it was a relatively weak showing and that, coupled with Allister’s defeat by the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr. in North Antrim, could indicate that the TUV is more sheep in wolf’s clothing than wolf.
That’s evidence that the TUV is losing the battle to get unionist voters to reject the DUP’s compromise with Sinn Fein. That’s important if Northern Ireland is indeed moving into the ‘new era’ that Ford talks about.
One sign of a new era may be, bizarrely enough, the sympathetic words of condolence that Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has offered Robinson,
One can not help but feel empathy with Peter Robinson. You can be sacked privately, but if you are sacked by the public, it can be a very humbling experience and of course I feel sorry for him.
I don’t know if Long’s victory will strike a chord with apathetic or disillusioned non-voters –from all sectors of the community – who have previously felt that there was little point ‘wasting’ votes on parties that fall outside the unionist and nationalist blocks. I don’t know if it will motivate our two largest parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – to work better together for all.
But maybe it’s a start …