Could unionist turn-off from politics help the SDLP return to Europe?

Northern Ireland constituency profile: Alex Attwood has outside chance of regaining John Hume’s seat

 It’s a tough task for the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, but if he manages to get ahead of Jim Nicholson in the early counts there is a possibility he could stay there. Photograph:  Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

It’s a tough task for the SDLP’s Alex Attwood, but if he manages to get ahead of Jim Nicholson in the early counts there is a possibility he could stay there. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Tue, May 20, 2014, 01:19

If the three Northern Ireland MEPs aren’t all returned to Europe people will be surprised, but not shocked. There is an outside prospect of an upset in this election with the beneficiary in such an eventuality likely to be the SDLP’s Alex Attwood.

That would mean either the DUP’s Diane Dodds or, a stronger possibility, veteran European Jim Nicholson of the Ulster Unionist Party having to call it a day in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Stretching it much further, there is the rather more doubtful possibility that Dodds or Nicholson could lose out to the DUP’s bete noire, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister.

Should Attwood take a seat, people won’t be overly surprised, because Peter Robinson regularly throughout this campaign has warned unionists of such a possibility. There’s an alphabet soup of unionist or pro-union parties competing – DUP, UUP, TUV, Ukip, NI21 and Conservatives – and that’s what worrying the First Minister – “vote shredding” – together with a more general unionist political anxiety that many unionists may just stay at home.

Past European elections were frequently viewed as effective Border polls on a united Ireland, fierce contests to determine which of the two political beasts, Ian Paisley for the DUP and John Hume of the SDLP, would top the poll.

Constitutional fragility
Many unionists, even when the DUP was the minority unionist player to the UUP, feared that Hume polling most first preferences would send out a very negative signal about the constitutional fragility of Northern Ireland.

So, they voted first for the Big Man and allowed their second preferences to ensure that first John Taylor (Lord Kilclooney) and subsequently Jim Nicholson would also take a seat.

Hume got very close in 1994 and 1999 but he never out-polled the Doc. Which made unionists of all strands feel more comfortable if not secure.

When Paisley and Hume handed over their batons in 2004 it got more complicated. That year Allister, then a DUP man, topped the poll. His transfers helped drag the UUP’s Nicholson over the line.

The SDLP vote collapsed disastrously, dropping by more than 100,000, with Bairbre de Brún coming home in second place for Sinn Féin.

Much happened between 2004 and 2009, primarily Paisley deciding to share power with Sinn Féin. Allister walked away from the DUP in protest but he formed his own party, the TUV, and ran against Robinson’s flag-bearer, Diane Dodds.

The outcome was that de Brún (she has now been succeeded by Martina Anderson) topped the poll and the split-unionist vote resulted in Nicholson being elected and, embarrassingly, Dodds squeezing in sub-quota with the help of Allister transfers – the SDLP again relegated to fourth place in this three-seater.

Political stasis
Much has also happened between 2009 and 2014. Indeed, much has happened in the past two weeks considering the arrest, questioning and release of Gerry Adams, which should help Anderson top the poll.

Before Adams there was the flags disorder; unionist refusal to move on the Haass proposals on parades, flags and the past; fairly constant carping between Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness; and a consequent concern about political stasis.

Political stagnation doesn’t inspire voters. It could mean unionists and nationalists and those in between wishing a plague on all the houses of the 10 candidates. Certainly that was the case in the 2009 election when, astonishingly for Northern Ireland, only 42.8 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote.

The fact that local elections are also being held this time may bring up the turnout but nonetheless electoral ennui may be the big winner. And here for some rather inexplicable reason unionists tend to be more committed in their apathy, so to speak, than nationalists.

Hardcore Sinn Féin voters certainly will be far from lethargic following the arrest of Gerry Adams. SDLP voters perhaps won’t be as pumped, but with the smell of a second nationalist seat that bloc may come out in stronger numbers this time.

It’s a tough task for Attwood, but if he manages to get ahead of Nicholson in the early counts there is a possibility he could stay there. He will need generous transfers from the likes of Sinn Féin, Anna Lo of Alliance and Tina McKenzie of NI21.

Odds are that after the votes are counted the status quo will prevail, but for once that’s not guaranteed, which makes this election interesting and exciting for politically motivated nationalists, and worrying for similarly minded unionists.