In the 2001 General Election, the UUP held the most seats of any party in Northern Ireland with 6 MPs under the leadership of David Trimble. Now, in 2019, they are the only major party not to have a seat in the province. Despite a small increase in their vote of 1.4%, they failed to gain any seats. So, what went wrong?
The election did not start off well. Under the new leadership of Steve Aiken, the election started with a blunder in Belfast North. At first, the party said they would stand in the seat. Following pressure from unionists in the area, Aiken decided to withdraw from the constituency. In the end, the UUP did not even need to stand aside with Sinn Féin winning with a majority of almost 2,000 ahead of the DUP’s Nigel Dodds.
Media attention on the UUP soon turned to Fermanagh and South Tyrone – the most likely seat which the party could win. Here the electoral pact worked the opposite way with the DUP standing aside in favour of Tom Elliot, who held the seat from 2015 – 2017. Since this unionist pact was introduced here in 2010, the result has always been incredibly tight with majorities only in three figures. This knife edge seat is always a difficult one to predict and often depends on who can most effectively turn out its voters: orange or green. Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew lost 3.9% of her vote, whilst Elliott lost only 2.3%. This, however, was not enough and after a recount the seat was once again handed to Gildernew with a slim majority of just 57 votes. In this seat, the SDLP, Alliance and Caroline Wheeler (independent) gained votes – all of which may have taken votes away from the UUP.
Elsewhere, things did not improve. With the news of Lady Sylvia Hermon not standing again in North Down, hopes should have been high in UUP circles. Until 2010, Hermon had been a UUP MP but decided to stand as an independent following the long-extinct link up with the Conservative party. With Hermon receiving 41.1% of the votes here in 2017, this should have been fertile territory for a UUP gain. However, Alliance won the seat beating the UUP, by a huge 13,422 votes leaving them in a distant third behind the DUP.
This was really the story of the night for the UUP with soft-unionists increasingly moving away from their orange label to support the likes of Alliance. In the 16 seats which the UUP contested, Alliance received more votes than the UUP in 14 of these seats. Compare this to 2017 when the UUP beat Alliance in 10 seats. Take for instance Upper Bann. Back in 2015, this could have been considered a marginal seat with the UUP only being just over 2,000 votes behind the DUP’s. Now, rather than second place, the local MLA Doug Beattie lags in fourth place behind the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance (who saw an 8.3% swing here in 2019). This represents a 15.5% swing away from the UUP since 2015. This is incredibly worrying for the UUP.
There is only one constituency in which the UUP can be justifiably proud of its efforts – North Antrim. This seat has been a Paisley dynasty since Ian Paisley Sr took the seat off the UUP way back in 1970. In the light of the scandal of Ian Paisley Jr and his to Sri Lanka, the electorate in North Antrim partly turned away from Paisley with a 11.3% swing to the UUP. However, given Paisley had the largest majority of any MP in Northern Ireland in 2017, this was far from enough to oust him. Nevertheless, it does show how the UUP do have potential to damage the DUP, if the circumstances are right.
However, it would fair to argue that the circumstances are very much right and in favour of the UUP across Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster is not the most popular of leaders for the DUP. The RHI scandal. The DUP failing to go back into a Stormont executive. The DUP’s confidence and supply deal in Westminster. The DUP are in a dangerous place, losing 5.4% of their vote in this election. In such an environment, the UUP should be doing far better than their meagre gains in this election of 1.4%.
A prime example of a ripe constituency for the UUP is South Antrim – a seat that has switched between DUP and the UUP over the years. With Paul Girvan holding a majority of just over 3,000 since 2017 and all the other factors surrounding the DUP, this should have been a seat for the UUP. Yet, their vote decreased by 1.8% here. With Alliance also making impressive gains, the UUP lost their chance.
The UUP have a problem. Their positioning may well suit the soft unionist wanting to stray away from the DUP and its issues. However, the Alliance party is also perfectly positioned for the soft unionist. Add to this, the ability of the Alliance party to reach out to a broader field of soft nationalism – something the UUP has failed to do, even with the Mike Nesbitt’s infamous “Vote Mike get Colm” message of old!
The UUP have a difficult time ahead of them. Electoral politics is all about gathering together a large enough coalition of voters to be successful. This election showed the inability of the UUP to muster up this coalition. How can the party to capture those dissatisfied with model of unionism offered by the DUP, whilst at the same time, take voters away from the likes of Alliance? New leader Steve Aiken has a great challenge ahead of him.
Peter Moor is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.