Sinn Fein’s emergence as the largest party, giving them the right to nominate the province’s First Minister, has been claimed by some to represent a significant shift in opinion on the border question and a threat to the Union.
Sinn Fein ended up with 27 seats in the Assembly, two ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party on 25. The symbolism of a nationalist party – particularly one with Sinn Fein’s history and its connections with the IRA – now holding the office of First Minister is significant.
Drill down into the results, however, and the reality is somewhat different. Sinn Fein didn’t gain new ground, the DUP lost old ground to their neighbouring parties. The nationalists may have emerged ahead, but they did not actually gain a single seat. Indeed, their vote share, at 29 per cent, was up just one per cent on 2017 and seems to have come at the expense of the more moderate SDLP, whose vote fell by three per cent. While the DUP lost three seats, there are still more unionist MLAs than there are nationalist.
It was another difficult election for my friends in the Ulster Unionist Party. The political force that dominated Northern Irish politics for most of the last century – the party of Chichester-Clark, O’Neill and Trimble – is now reduced to just nine seats and 11 per cent of the vote.
At one point on Friday, it did look like the party’s leader, Doug Beattie, might actually lose his own seat in Upper Bann, although he just held on. Attempts to appeal to moderate unionists with a progressive message did not prove successful on this occasion, with the DUP declining largely to the benefit of the cross-community Alliance Party.
It is a salutary reminder that political parties, however significant their history, have no automatic right to exist. We have seen something very similar in recent years in France, with the virtual disappearance of the traditional parties of left and right, eclipsed by the rise of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche Party, founded only in 2016.
The real story of the Northern Irish election is not of a growth in nationalist support, but rather the splintering of the unionist vote amongst four parties. This leaves Sinn Fein, now in control of the office of First Minister, despite not winning any more seats.
Sinn Fein has changed its message radically since the days when their voices were dubbed by actors on the television news. The DUP’s mood music still has an Ian Paisley-like timbre of “never, never, never”. They need to change key.
There is a clear parallel with our situation in Scotland. The SNP emerged as the largest party, with 34 per cent of votes cast, up two per cent on what had been a relatively poor performance in 2017 – well short of what many pollsters had predicted. It was also far short of a majority, even adding in the votes of their pro-independence allies at Holyrood in the Scottish Greens.
The former First Minister Jack McConnell pointed out at the weekend that when the votes for independents were excluded, the ‘leave the UK’ parties polled 45.6 per cent this election, whilst those fighting to stay in the UK polled 54.4 per cent – almost exactly as in the 2014 referendum. Scotland, as he put it, is stuck. The fact that the major talking point in this election was the fight for second place tells us all we need to know.
That doesn’t stop the SNP already trying to use the result as the springboard for yet another attempt to hold an independence referendum. But, just as in Northern Ireland, nationalists are benefitting from a divided pro-Union vote. All this will add fuel to those who argue that some realignment of Scottish politics is required if nationalism is to be defeated and we can move forward from the current stasis.
For the immediate future, the situation that last week’s election results leaves us in presents real challenges. There are only two councils in the whole of Scotland where one party has overall control – the SNP in Dundee, and Labour in West Dunbartonshire. That means in each of the other 30 councils some form of co-operation will need to be agreed between the parties.
And this is where it gets difficult. It is impossible to conceive any formal arrangements between the SNP and the Conservatives. Labour have already said they will not do a formal deal with anyone, despite working with the SNP in six councils over the last five years, and having had a very successful partnership with the Conservatives in Aberdeen City in that same period (which led to that council being named UK Council of the Year).
The Greens will be fed, groomed and wormed by the SNP, whilst the Liberal Democrats are likely to want to work with any pro-Union colleagues. But simple arithmetic is going to make it extremely difficult to put together coalition or informal deals to ensure administrations in our councils which can run effectively.
The irony is that at local level there is often little disagreement about what decisions should be taken. There is not much politics in decisions about emptying the bins or filling potholes in the road. It would be a pity if a hangover from Westminster politics, and the constitutional question, got in the way in the effective delivery of good local services.
All political parties are in fact coalitions themselves, just as most ‘normal’ independent nations like Germany, Spain and Italy are, in fact, unions. I hope that across Scotland we will see councillors from different political persuasions, at least on the pro-Union side, prepared to work together. It is what our citizens and communities will expect.
Murdo Fraser is Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife