Picking through the entrails of the election

There’s a temptation to see the state of the different political parties in NEI as changed, changed utterly by the recent election. I’m tempted to think the same myself, but a letter in today’s Irish Times helps moderate such radical interpretation of the voters’ decision.

It’s by one Declan O’Donovan, former Joint Secretary of the Anglo-Irish Secretariat.

He tackles a number of claims, starting with the idea that since the Alliance Party more than doubled its number of seats, the forces rejecting both orange and green are on the march, and that the ‘sensible’ people in the north are finally going to see non-constitutional politics as making sense.

Uh-uh. Mr O’Donovan points out that far from being ‘the story of the election’, the Alliance Party’s gain is other middle-ground loss. For instance , of the nine seat Alliance gained, seven came from other middle-of-the-road parties: “The Greens lost two seats, the UUP lost one and the SDLP lost four”. He concludes from this that “the Alliance Party, initially the refuge of unionists tired of sectarian politics, is now supported in the majority by nationalists rather than unionists.” Whodathunkit?

Mr O’Donovan also points out that Alliance had been predicted to gain 16% in March and 14% in April. In fact it got 13.5%. “The DUP won more votes in the actual poll as Alliance lost traction and won fewer votes, and the UUP and the SDLP too.”

Finally, he argues that unionists are still in a majority in the Assembly with 37 seats. Nationalists hold just 35.

He also casts some cold water on the notion that the election was a Sinn Féin triumph.  In fact that party got the same number of seats as last time – 27 – although it got 1% more first preference votes, “quite likely lent by SDLP voters wishing to seethe first nationalist First Minister”.

All Mr O’Donovan’s points are worth meditating on, lest we lose the run of ourselves. Sad to say, it’s in his final point – that the SDLP ‘lent’ votes to Sinn Féin, that  he talks through his nether parts. To claim that votes are ‘lent’ clearly indicates that Mr O’Donovan believes those votes will return to their SDLP ‘home’ next time out.

Now that’s what I’d call a very long shot at predicting the next Assembly election. If there is one.

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