POLITICAL REVIEW: Can Naomi Keep Her Seat

Article excerpt

SHE has barely finished celebrating her Westminster victory, and has not yet travelled to the House of Commons.

But already pundits are trying to figure out what happened in East Belfast when Naomi Long clinched the seat from the DUP in a sensational upset - and whether the Alliance Lord Mayor can hold on to it.

It is a question that may be tested at the polls in a year or two, if strains emerge in the Conservative and Liberal coalition sufficient to trigger another general election.

Read Ben Lowry's analysis on the historic election here...

And the electoral prospects of the Alliance Party's first MP in its 40-year history go to the heart of political identity in Northern Ireland, and indeed the question of who is unionist.

At first sight, it seems that Mrs Long will struggle to hold East Belfast if unionist unity gathers pace and a single candidate emerges to challenge her.

Given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Peter Robinson's demise, and the fact that his was the only DUP vote to collapse in Northern Ireland (down 20 per cent), a return of unionist voters around a single candidate ought to be the most likely outcome. Such a return would mean the easy defeat of Alliance.

But it can also be argued that she is already emerging as a popular local figure who, as the incumbent MP, will become difficult to unseat in the same way that Lady Sylvia Hermon is safe as the independent MP for North Down.

Some pundits are also saying that Mrs Long's victory was partly symbolic of a much deeper problem for unionism: that many Protestants, particularly in the suburban east of Northern Ireland, don't much like the tag unionist.

East Belfast is as Protestant as it gets a according to the electoral expert Nicholas Whyte's analysis of the last census, as it applies to electoral boundaries, the east of the city makes up the most overwhelmingly Protestant of the 18 constituencies with only 7.5 per cent of the population being Catholic.

But Protestantism is increasingly irreligious, with a for example a a large majority not attending church, according to the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes Survey.

Many of these irreligious Protestants live in the eastern suburbs of Belfast, which was one of the places in the 1980s where the RUC had to throw people out of illegally-opened pubs on Sunday, before the law was changed to allow drinking on the Sabbath.

And many more residents of East Belfast do not even call themselves Protestant: a large minority of the electorate, 22 per cent, are "no religion or religion not stated", the second highest in the Northern Ireland constituencies.

This helps explain why it has always been Alliance's strongest constituency.

Peter Robinson's narrow defeat last week mirrors his own first victory in 1979 a the only previous time that Alliance came close to Westminster.

Robinson got 15,994 votes, the Ulster Unionist incumbent Bill Craig won 15,930, while Alliance's Oliver Napier ran a close third on 15,066.
Mr Robinson easily won a similar three-way contest four years later in 1983, and after that unionist unity (post Anglo Irish Agreement) kicked in, sealing his position.

Yet all the way through, Alliance has remained strong in East Belfast.
In 1987, the soon-to-be Alliance leader John Alderdice collected a healthy 10,574 votes, albeit dwarfed by Mr Robinson's 20,372 as the sole unionist contender.

Not a lot appears to have changed since then, except a splintered unionism. If all last week's unionist votes are added together a TUV, DUP, Ulster Unionist a then unionist candidates are on 20,467, well ahead of Mrs Long's 12,839.

But that assumes that a broken TUV or equivalent anti-agreement unionist stays out of any future contest and their voters go for a unity candidate. …