Page last updated at 05:13 GMT, Friday, 7 May 2010 06:13 UK

What now for unionism?

Leaders

By Conor Spackman
BBC News Online

The general election of 2010 will be remembered as a disastrous night for the leaders of unionism.

Those who went to bed early will be waking up to one of the biggest shocks in the political history of Northern Ireland - Naomi Long beating Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat.

As recently as the general election of 2001, Mr Robinson won 42.5 per cent of the vote in the constituency and his position seemed impregnable.

That edifice came crumbling down in the early hours of Friday with a result that even Naomi Long herself barely dared to believe was possible.

Mr Robinson's own personal failure has to be seen in the context of a solid, strong performance by his party in other constituencies.

When he performed strongly in the European election a year ago, Jim Allister famously boasted that his 70,000 votes translated into P45s for DUP politicians.

Scratch

That did not materialise, with Ian Paisley Junior easily seeing off Mr Allister's challenge in North Antrim and the TUV failing to make much more than a scratch in areas where they hoped to do well, like South Antrim and Lagan Valley.

Those analysing why the DUP did well and its leader did badly will of course be quick to seize upon the controversy which has dogged him in the past year.

The interview he gave on the eve of revelations in a BBC documentary that his wife had been secretly funding her teenage lover's business was as dramatic as the moment the electoral officer sealed his parliamentary fate.

Despite claiming that he had been exonerated of any wrongdoing in relation to his wife Iris' financial affairs, Mr Robinson's political opponents maintained that they were not happy that he had satisfactorily cleared his name.

The subsequent controversy over his purchase of land from a developer for £5 - a man with whom his wife also had financial dealings - came a few months later and was more grist to the mill for Mr Robinson's political enemies.

Add to that the expenses affair, where he and his wife were dubbed the "Swish Family Robinson" by sections of the print media, and it was apparent that the First Minister was not the political behemoth he had once appeared.

Opportunity

Against that background, the stage seemed set for the Ulster Unionists to seize the initiative.

They attempted to put a decade of relatively desperate results behind them by a new alliance with the Conservatives.

Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force pledged to put up candidates in every constituency and offer a new politics more closely aligned to the GB variety rather than the traditional unionist v nationalist battles.

The new alliance seemed ill-starred from the beginning.

The Ulster Unionist's sole MP voted more often with Labour than the Conservatives and after making it clear privately that she was not happy with the link-up, Lady Sylvia Hermon procrastinated at length before finally deciding that she would rather be an independent.

Despite the addition of the former television journalist Mike Nesbitt adding some stardust to the ranks, there was more dissension, especially from those who were more Conservative than Unionist.

Naomi Long
Peter Robinson lost his seat to Naomi Long of Alliance

Some felt that the Ulster Unionists had too strong a hold on the alliance and when push came to shove had not fully embraced the idea of rejecting orange and green politics.

The link-up never threatened to catch fire and on the eve of polling, many in the party privately admitted that only the party leader Sir Reg Empey, who had jumped constituency to South Antrim, had a chance of making sure they kept their single seat.

Failed

He failed, leaving the UUP without any MPs for the first time in the modern era.

For a party which for a several generations was the answer to the old quiz question about who had the fourth largest number of seats in the House of Commons, it will be seen many as inexcusable embarrassment.

Already the vultures are circling around Sir Reg - barely had the returning officer announced the South Antrim result before his party colleague David McNarry said his leadership was finished.

Lady Sylvia says that she believes he will do the "honourable" thing - and many political analysts feel that the profound failure of the New Force leaves him no other option than to fire up the ejector seat.

What happens to Peter Robinson is less clear.

The question for him is whether he can construct an arrangement which allows him to lead at Stormont while a colleague takes charge of the DUP's Westminster operation.

Whether his party will now seem him as so irreparably damaged that he cannot remain in charge anywhere, will become clearer in the coming days.

The possible departure of the Robinson and Empey leaderships would potentially have one significant consequence - a move towards greater unionist unity.

In 2001, unionists held three out of the four seats in Belfast. Nine years later, they hold one - and that with a diminishing majority.

Both the DUP and the Ulster Unionists acknowledge that unity is a worthy aspiration, with the pragmatic aim of stopping Sinn Fein being the biggest party at the Assembly election.

The next twelve months will show whether they have the political will to make it a reality.



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