Unionist unity calls follow election results
Thursday, 9 March 2017
THE Assembly election results in the West Tyrone and Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituencies and indeed all across Northern Ireland was a wake-up call for unionism and its future, it has been claimed.
That's the opinion of prominent local unionist politicians who have spoken this week of the need to revitalise unionism in the wake of the reshaping of the political landscape where Sinn Féin increased their first preference votes and took three of the five seats on offer in each of the two constituencies.
The DUP's Thomas Buchanan will be the sole unionist standard-bearer in West Tyrone with Daniel McCrossan (SDLP) and Sinn Féin's Barry McElduff, Michaela Boyle and Declan McAleer filling the other seats. The UUP lost its seat here, despite a gallant effort by outgoing MLA Ross Hussey's replacement, first-time candidate, Alicia Clarke.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and the UUP's Rosemary Barton will be the only two unionists representing Fermanagh-South Tyrone while the other seats went to Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew, Sean Lynch and the only successful newcomer in either constituency, Jemma Dolan. Outgoing MLAs, DUP party chairman, Lord (Maurice Morrow) and the SDLP's Richie McPhillips, lost their seats in what was a shock for both camps.
Turnout in both areas for this snap election exceeded all expectations. It was up by 10 percent in West Tyrone to 69.89 but the figures show that despite an increase of some 500 votes the DUP share of the vote dropped by 1.6 percent, while Sinn Féin's share rose by six percent.
Likewise in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the 72.61 percent turnout was up 8 percent on last year. The DUP vote climbed from 22.7 percent in 2016 to 29.8 percent this time out, but Sinn Féin jumped by over 10 percent from 32.6 percent to 42.11 percent.
Vote management and mobilisation, increased turnout, renewed nationalism, the reduction in available seats in each constituency from six to five, the RHI 'cash for ash' and other controversies have all contributed to make this one of the most intriguing elections for years.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) retained its position as Northern Ireland's largest party but only with a one seat majority. They won only one seat more than Sinn Féin, the big winner of the day. The final tally of seats in the new Assembly is: DUP 28, Sinn Féin 27, SDLP 12, UUP 10, Alliance 8, Green Party 2, TUV 1, People Before Profit 1 and Independent 1.
Now as negotiations have started on the formation of a new power sharing Executive, many within unionism are looking to examine the fallout from unionism's worst every performance. The call for a fresh look at the unionist position comes on top of comments by DUP party leader, Arlene Foster, in a national newspaper yesterday (Tuesday) where she said she would like to see a renewed attempt to "create unionist unity where the parties would come together" adding that failing that they needed to agree transfer pacts where unionist transfers down the ballot paper to each other.
Her stance has received the full backing of her West Tyrone DUP MLA and poll-topper, Tom Buchanan.
"I think the time has come when there's got to be more unity between the unionist families especially when we've seen what has happened in West Tyrone where we have lost a unionist seat from within the unionist family. I do think it is time there was much more unionist unity within the unionist people."
He said one only had to look at what happened generally across Northern Ireland referring to his party which got more votes, but ended up with less seats and in every constituency their vote increased, yet seats went down.
"We know why that happened and the way vote transfers went from unionism to the SDLP and that obviously knocked out a number of seats we would have got. I think the unionist people have got to waken up and realise what is better for them - is it the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or is it a united Ireland - that's the stark reality unionist people have to waken up to in this particular situation that we find ourselves in. I do believe if ever there was a time for unionist unity it was now," he said.
He added he was happy with his result.
"I think it may well be the highest poll the DUP has ever taken in West Tyrone. It's down to the people on the ground who have put their trust in the DUP."
He added the UUP or the TUV had no real effect on them.
"That speaks something to the TUV. Rather than fighting from within let's now pull together as a unionist unity to take the cause forward rather than splinters here and there that's really going nowhere and achieving nothing."
"There's no doubt Thursday's result was a sad day for unionism as a family within West Tyrone. If ever there was a wake-up call, that was it.We always had two unionist seats within the Assembly, we're down now to one and we'll have to rebuild to get that seat back again and that's something we will be working on and something we will achieve at a future date," he said.
Veteran UUP councillor, Bert Wilson, has called for the establishment of a single unionist party saying last Friday's result was nothing short of a 'disaster' when only one unionist candidate had been returned to Stormont from West Tyrone.
The vice-chairman of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council was reacting to UUP candidate, Alicia Clarke's failure to retain outgoing MLA, Ross Hussey's seat. He said she was an excellent candidate with youth on her side, but with an increased quota and options for transfers lessened, it was a difficult challenge for her on the first time out.
Cllr Wilson said with only one unionist party there would have been more opportunities and less duplication and claimed nothing had been gained by having two or three looking for votes from the same pool.
"There is a possibility that having just one party might encourage unionists to come out and vote as well rather then squabbling among themselves. It's not a good recipe for the long term," he said.
"In the west of the province in particular it's united we stand, divided we fall - that's my way of looking at it. We should have only one party," he said.
'Wait and see'
Meanwhile, Fermanagh-South Tyrone MLA, Rosemary Barton, said she would like to adopt a 'wait and see' approach in relation to Mrs Foster's call for a united unionist front.
"We have supported voting for pro-union candidates going into this election and indeed that has always been the tradition in Fermangh-South Tyrone. At the moment we've got to take a step back and try and assess what has happened and then make decisions. It's too early to go forward on that idea yet."
She added everyone had to look within their own parties first and see what is best.
"You can't run before you can walk," she said.
Her party colleague and Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP., Tom Elliott, is set to lead the UUP the party's delegation for the forthcoming talks to restore devolution.
TUV candidate in West Tyrone, Charlie Chittick said while he thought unionist unity was a good idea, he could see problems making this happen.
"It's not a bad idea but by the time you get rid of party egos and labels you would have a job of work to do. I'm not sure how you would go about that. In principle, it sounds good but in practice the reality would be a totally different ball game."
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