Robinson must hold his nerve as DUP supremacy challenged


ANALYSIS:The Allister performance has turned up the heat on the DUP, writes GERRY MORIARTY,Northern Editor

JIM ALLISTER put up a strong taunting challenge to Peter Robinson in the King’s Hall count centre in Belfast yesterday, and it is now for the First Minister to decide how to respond.

A lot rides on how he reacts, and whether he will hold his political nerve.

Allister lost his European seat but won over 66,000 votes – a huge performance.

Diane Dodds topped the poll for the DUP in terms of the three-way battle between the DUP, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and the Ulster Unionists/ Conservatives, but that was with only 88,000 votes – half the vote Allister took when he stood for the DUP five years ago. That’s a dire DUP performance.

To add to the ignominy, Dodds had to be content with the third and final seat, needing the transfers of Allister to get into Europe.

From the sidelines Sinn Féin looked on satisfied but, because of poor results in the South, hardly smug.

Bairbre de Brún topped the poll with over 126,000 votes, making history by dislodging the DUP from the lofty perch it has held going back to the first European elections in 1979.

So, was the DUP unnerved? “Just take a look around you,” said Allister. “Have you ever seen more pale-faced, long-faced individuals – many people worried about their P45s from the Assembly. I think it’s written right across their faces.”

Allister intends challenging for Ian Paisley’s North Antrim seat in the next Westminster elections when Paisley steps down. Ian jnr is his likely opponent and, based on yesterday’s results, Allister would give him a very good run.

He intends to stand TUV candidates in other Westminster constituencies as well, although he would not say how many. If he could replicate his vote in the next Assembly elections he could take six, eight or more seats. He could change the arithmetic in an Assembly where Sinn Féin was the largest party, with Martin McGuinness in line for the post of first minister. A lot riding on Robinson’s next move indeed.

The DUP must face into a period of confusion, fear and recrimination. Thereafter, the challenge is for Robinson to steady the ship. The British and Irish governments and everyone else who believes in the Belfast Agreement will find some solace in his initial response, at least.

Robinson put the poor DUP vote down to issues such as the controversy over Westminster expenses and DUP double- and treble-jobbing – issues, which he said would be addressed. But he also acknowledged there is still a body of unionism which cannot abide Sinn Féin in government.

Senior DUP figures reckon this accounted for about 30,000 of Allister’s vote. This is a number, according to DUP strategists, that will be manageable and will not inflict grave damage come the more serious Westminster and Assembly elections.

Allister wants what cannot be achieved – a government at Stormont that excludes Sinn Féin. Robinson realises that full well. He indicated he would not be lurching to the right to Allister’s ground because he believed the “overwhelming number of people want devolution to work”.

The only alternative was a reversion to direct rule with a greater role for Dublin, and the majority of people didn’t want that, he asserted.

The coming weeks and months will be taxing for Robinson, but at least while wounded he still appeared up for the fight, and committed to powersharing. Nonetheless, one couldn’t help fearing there could be merit in SDLP leader Mark Durkan’s view that we could be in a for a period of “sterile politics” as the DUP takes time to regroup.

Bairbre de Brún was the picture of contentment in the King’s Hall, looking more relaxed and less tired than the other candidates. That made sense because Dodds, with her refrain about preventing Sinn Féin topping the poll, did a lot of de Brún’s canvassing for her: she ensured the Sinn Féin vote came out.

And well could Jim Nicholson crow, delighted to be the first unionist returned, ahead of Dodds. Owen Paterson, Tory spokesman, wandering around the King’s Hall yesterday, also appeared well pleased.

The link-up between the UUP and David Cameron’s Conservative Party prompted a positive response on the doorstep, said the Ulster Unionist election campaigners – the Cameron factor was good for Ulster Unionism.

Early in the campaign an SDLP strategist said Alban Maginness could sneak a second seat because of the split unionist vote, but that the party would need at least 100,000 first preferences.

Just 42 per cent of the electorate turned out – low for Northern Ireland – and Maginness was 22,000 votes short of the required figure.

He was left lamenting the nationalist stay-at-homes.