Peter Robinson, Naomi Long, and the 2010 Westminster Elections: A New Era in Northern Irish Politics?

image 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 …

6 Responses to Peter Robinson, Naomi Long, and the 2010 Westminster Elections: A New Era in Northern Irish Politics?

  1. Tim Moore May 9, 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    Naomi Long’s election was certainly one of the big surprises to have emerged from the 2010 General Election. As an alternative to Peter Robinson, the tagline “Allicance Works”, found on posters throughout the constituency with a photo of a smiling Naomi Long, struck a chord with the people of East Belfast over the UUP/Conservative candidate, who came third.

    I am inclined to agree that the vote is a reaction against the numerous scandals surrounding Peter Robinson and his wife. That’s not to discount Gerald Ford’s assessment that the people of East Belfast do want to see a new kind of politics, but it is unclear as to how strongly voters harboured such feelings about UK-wide, Northern Irish politics, or both.

    I think that Long’s performance as MP will play a role in determining voters’ desire for a change to the political culture of Northern Ireland. I couldn’t speculate as to whether Long will achieve this or not: many predictions were made about the General Election that turned out to be naive at best, or ridiculous at worst.

  2. Tim Moore May 9, 2010 at 3:52 pm #

    Don’t know where I got the Gerald Ford from, perhaps it’s because politics is undergoing a 70s revival… in a bad way.

    Sorry David!

  3. Eoin O'Mahony May 10, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    1. He’s been elected in every election since 1979!! time to move on dot org.

    2. note the lack of concern in British TV to Robinson’s defeat. It says a lot.

  4. Tim Moore May 10, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    I think you’re spot on, Eoin, especially on the second point.

    People on the other side of the water (where I happen to come from) stopped caring about Northern Ireland a long time ago, rightly or wrongly. Many within the London-based press and media don’t understand the situation in Ulster very well, and I know of instances when journalists and producers have actively avoided covering it. This may be a consequence of the lack of public interest about Northern Ireland in Britain, but I don’t believe it should be an excuse.

  5. Philip O'Neill May 11, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    Unfortunately I agree with Tim, most people in the UK don’t particularly care about N Ireland. But perhaps you should care, or at least understand a little more. At present in the Government spend £3000 per head in the UK, in Northern Ireland this spend is closer to £6000.
    Now that there is a hung parliament the UK government will be reliant on NI politicians to support or prop them up. But do they fully understand NI politics and the policies of particular parties. It is often the agreements made in haste by successive UK governments when they need support which causes most issue back in N Ireland.

  6. Lynda Gould May 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    Let’s not forget all those who have consistently voted for change in East Belfast over many years. Nor should we overlook Long’s campaigning which was good – she made a connection with a personalised printed letter to every household and many fliers delivered by hand (DUP and SDLP came through the post). But she gained real momentum on one fact – that at the last Assembly election she was only 52 votes short of Robinson. I think that was her winning card… people genuinely believed that gaining 52 votes was doable and that change could happen. And it did…

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