Thursday, March 15, 2007

Results of the election in the north of Ireland reveal more than obvious conclusion

Brian Feeney:

MLAs new, old and very old have collected their passes, the keys to their offices, signed the register and designated themselves.

The dust of the election has settled and all the parties will carry on as if nothing has happened.

You could argue of course that nothing did happen, that the election merely confirmed what we all knew and expected – the DUP and Sinn Féin are top dogs.

However, the results revealed more than that obvious conclusion.

They signify a tipping point for the defeated parties, the UUP and SDLP.

True, both parties have been in decline against their rivals for some years now, in the case of the UUP a more precipitate drop than the SDLP's.

It's more though than the drop in numbers of voters and seats and percentage share that tells the tale, decisive though those figures are.

What was exposed at last week's election was the amateurishness and lack of human resources available to both the UUP and SDLP.

Neither party has enough members to mount a serious challenge to Sinn Féin or the DUP in the districts they used to contest.

The UUP's membership is tiny and mainly over 60, a bit like the British Conservative party that William Hague inherited.

The SDLP is argueably in worse shape.

In parts of north, east and west Belfast they have no members at all. The same is true in Fermanagh and Tyrone.

For both parties canvassing means the candidates, their families and a couple of friends traipsing around houses every night of the week.

It's demoralising and debilitating.

Yet both parties refuse to cut their coats according to their cloth.

They continue to pretend they are major players.

They nominate too many candidates in the wrong places and make matters worse by failing to divide the constituencies effectively.

Take the UUP in South Belfast, where in some streets each of the two candidates had posters asking voters for first preferences.

Take the SDLP in West Tyrone where they fielded three candidates with the prospect of one quota.

Who's to blame for this sort of nonsense?

That dynamic duo Sean Farren and Jim Nicholson, the directors of election for SDLP and UUP respectively.

When they saw the number of candidates selected, a cursory glance at the results in 2003 should have shown them a cock-up was inevitable. You can only divide up votes in a constituency if you have the votes to divide.

Can the party leaders escape blame?

At any stage did Mark Durkan or Sir Reg Empey step in and say, 'Whoa'? Not a bit of it.

In fact party SDLP HQ reinstated a third candidate in West Tyrone where there were neither the resources nor votes to warrant three. Empey's own campaign in East Belfast was pitiable.

How was it that SF's sharp election directorate, led by Pat Doherty and Sean Begley, and the DUP's equally effective team, led by Peter Robinson, triumphed in places like North Antrim, Strangford, West Belfast and Mid Ulster while Farren and Nicholson bombed everywhere?

First, Farren and Nicholson occupied largely titular roles – responsibility without power.

Both the UUP and SDLP are highly undisciplined parties with weak central organisation, if you can use that word. Local candidates paid virtually no attention to either Farren or Nicholson.

You might ask who can blame them?

Secondly, SF and the DUP played to their strengths. Did SF stand three candidates in South Belfast?

Did the DUP stand two in West Belfast? Why not?

It would have been stupid, that's why.

Third, SF and the DUP could stop local candidates fighting each other. SDLP and UUP couldn't.

In both the UUP and SDLP nothing will happen to change any of this. Both promised thorough-going inquests in 2003 and 2005. The result? Last Wednesday.

As Lady Sylvia Hermon said of the UUP's performance, it was "woeful". Unfortunately there is no-one in the SDLP with her stature who is critical.

This election has shown that whatever fantasies both parties entertained, there's now no way back.

They'll deny it, but next time there'll be new constituency boundaries and the results will be even worse.

The wisest course of action would be for the SDLP to merge with Sinn Fein and for the UUP to merge with the DUP. Of course, both the SDLP and the UUP are too arrogant to pursue this strategy.


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