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12 May 2005 Edition

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So what does it all mean?

BY LAURA FRIEL

Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly

Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Gerry Kelly

The votes have all been counted, the percentages calculated and the graphs drawn. We all know the results: the number of seats, the gains and the losses, the tactical voting and the turnout. But if this much is clear interpretation remains contentious. Just what does it all mean?

Of course, the two big media stories of the election results were the meltdown of the UUP and the survival of the SDLP, but on the meaning of this very few commentators could agree. Opinion couldn't have been more polarised around the collapse of the UUP vote.

There were those who saw David Trimble's demise determined by his support for the Good Friday Agreement. In sharp contrast, others saw Trimble as the architect of his own downfall because of his failure to support the Good Friday Agreement.

The image of Trimble as a heroic casualty of the Peace Process is most favoured by the Irish Times for whom "the Ulster Unionist represents the moderate voice in unionist politics".

"The history books will treat Trimble well but it seems he must now recuperate in the British House of Lords and hand over his leadership and what is left of his wounded party to someone else," writes Gerry Moriarty.

"The international story from yesterday‚s election is, of course, the defeat of Nobel laureate David Trimble. After almost ten years as UUP leader, David Trimble was dignified in his speech after the result," said Moriarty.

For Moriarty, Trimble's failure is nothing to do with his own actions or the inability of unionism to embrace progressive change, rather it can be understood in his acceptance of "what he understood was the word of the IRA". But while honest Trimble played straight, "some believe that republicans are engaging in a Machiavellian 'long game' to achieve a united Ireland".

For Frank Millar, Trimble has "paid the price for his fidelity to the Belfast Agreement". The notion of fidelity to the GFA and Trimble's leadership of the UUP is not something northern nationalists would recognise. Their relationship with the party, throughout decades of UUP-led sectarian domination, has been upfront and personal.

There may be those within the southern elites who wish to imagine bigotry was something invented by the fundamentalists of the DUP, but it wasn't. The UUP were the architects and high priests of the sectarian Six-County state. The Irish Times is confusing class with politics; the UUP simply have better table manners.

For Tom McGurk of the Sunday Business Post, Trimble's failure is rooted in his failure to embrace the Good Friday Agreement and its power sharing institutions.

"Trimble's failure was that he did not understand that maintaining the institutions of the agreement was his best chance of survival. Each time he walked away from power sharing, he damaged both what he had achieved and its status in the eyes of the public," writes McGurk.

"Critically, too, what he failed to understand was that battling outside the institutions was actually Paisley's home territory and Trimble was always bound to lose there. Imagine the difference it would have made had Trimble faced into this election with five or six years of the power sharing administration up and running. In these circumstances he could have credibly have contrasted UUP political success and achievement in contrast to DUP anarchy."

And the future of the UUP? Damien Kiberd, writing in Daily Ireland, sees the UUP trying to re-invent itself. "Bizarre though it may seem, the UUP will seek to outflank the Paisleyites on the right." And "at every step it will seek to apply the same tests to the DUP as the DUP applied to it in recent years".

Relative SDLP success hides failures

For months the media had been predicting the complete collapse of the SDLP vote. It didn't happen, but few commentators could agree why or how. For Alan Ruddock of the Sunday Times, the "SDLP's survival shows that Sinn Féin can be beaten", while for Brian Feeney it was simply a case of "SDLP failures hid by relative success".

For Ruddock, "the elections provided hope that the party [SDLP] has a future". Of course, Ruddock's analysis says more about his own political project and the Sunday Times' anti-republican agenda than the reality of the SDLP's status and its election results. And even Ruddock is aware of it. "Perhaps I am clutching at straws," he admits.

It's all wishful thinking and suggestions. "The election results suggest that Sinn Féin, in its current form, is reaching a political plateau." The number of people who are prepared to vote Sinn Féin "might have just peaked", suggests Ruddock. And "the middle ground in Northern Ireland's nationalist community remains alive and kicking", he hopes.

Feeney sees the SDLP as living "to fight another day" but cautions against unwarranted optimism. "This election was do or die" for the SDLP after their failures in the 2003 Assembly elections and 2004 European election.

"At first sight it would appear that the SDLP has pulled the fat out of the fire," says Feeney, but the party's Foyle win "will conceal the demise of the party's fortunes elsewhere, most obviously the loss of Séamus Mallon's Newry/Armagh seat". Feeney argues that focusing on the SDLP's three seats only distracts attention away from the 4.5% swing from the SDLP and towards Sinn Féin.

Feeney points out: "The Westminster seats the SDLP won do nothing to provide a solution to the dilemma the SDLP has been unable to solve in recent years, namely what the SDLP is for once the Republican Movement had ended its military strategy and Sinn Féin had adopted peaceful and democratic means as the way forward."

For Liam Clarke of the Sunday Times, "the SDLP will be considering its future after a diminished performance". Despite the Foyle result, the SDLP's "share of the vote fell overall" and although "the expected meltdown did not occur", the party has not challenged, merely "slowed down the advance of Sinn Féin".

The Belfast Telegraph points out that the SDLP had lost 50,000 voters in the two years between 2001 and 2003, to recover only slightly by regaining 8,000 but "some of those appear to have been unionist". The Telegraph calculates that 2,000 votes in Foyle and around 1,000 votes for the SDLP in South Down were due to unionist tactical voting.

"I have no shame in any unionist votes that I received in this election," declared Mark Durkan, "because my party earned them." Republicans will, of course, interpret Durkan's words rather differently than he possibly intended.

Suzanne Breen of the Sunday Tribune admits that if the SDLP had lost Foyle the party would have been finished and even now there is no room for complacency. "The SDLP confounded observers by winning three seats, yet it was demolished in North and particularly in West Belfast, where it was outpolled five to one," says Breen.

Trimble out

They had all predicted it, the loss of David Trimble's seat and the demise of the Ulster Unionist Party, but the full horror of what they were witnessing hadn't occurred to most. Reading their reports you can almost feel the collective shudder of commentators reporting the DUP's advance.

"David Trimble's speech, accepting defeat in Upper Bann, was drowned by the pounding of Lambeg drums from DUP supporters outside. There was music, madness, handmade placards, and Union Jack hats and flags. They brought everything but champagne," said Breen.

Any notion of Christian charity, let alone humility, even towards defeated fellow unionists, is an anathema to the DUP. It might be "Praise the Lord" and hymn singing on the inside but outside the relentless beating of the Lambeg left few in doubt as to the meaning of the DUP victory. "No Surrender!" shouted Paisley.

"Just take a look at those acceptance speeches made by the nine victorious DUP candidates," writes Damien Kiberd in Daily Ireland. "There was no hint of self doubt here. Almost all saw the hand of God present in their victories. Some referred to their belief that they were involved in a 'war' against evil forces. Welcome not just to the 18th Century but to the Crusades of the 11th Century."

Republican view

As for republicans, the DUP is simply unionism in the raw, stripped of all pretence, laid bare and its reactionary fundamentalism has been frightening us for years. Unlike many media commentators, republicans are neither shocked nor surprised by the current face of unionism. And many believe that the DUP euphoria at having outpolled the UUP will be short lived.

The DUP now hold nine of a possible ten unionist seats, while nationalists have secured eight. Sinn Féin holds five seats in the North, with every possibility of making further inroads into the SDLP vote with every subsequent election. As an all-Ireland party, Sinn Féin's potential for expansion remains huge, while the DUP have almost achieved their full potential.

In other words, unionism has almost reached its endgame. Even within the North, unionism has been forced to retreat into a tight geographical area of virtually two counties. On the other hand, all the border constituencies are held by nationalists, exposing the contradiction of continued partition.

The DUP's victory over the UUP can be best understood as unionism circling the wagons in readiness for the last stand.

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