Politics in Northern Ireland is changing. But the backstop won't

A historic victory for the cross-community Alliance underlines why Brussels won't shift 

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This year's European election in Northern Ireland was that rare thing: a political event truly worthy of the label "historic". And for once in the Brexit process, neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP is the story. Instead, as was the case in this month's council elections, that mantle goes to the cross-community Alliance Party. Tonight it has its first ever MEP in Naomi Long, its leader. (Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson and the DUP's Diane Dodds came in first and second on first preferences, as they did in 2014.)

Long had been thought to be in a close race for third place but was eventually elected second on transfers, a couple of counts after - Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, elects its MPs using the single transferable vote - while Anderson, despite having the most first preferences, was elected last. It's a remarkable result for Alliance, who more than doubled the number of first preferences they won in 2014. Taken together with their surge in this month's council elections, it is clear that the party is in the ascendant. That is in no small part down to Long's charismatic leadership. Her party now indisputably owns the centre-ground and has demonstrated its appeal reaches beyond non-aligned voters and liberal unionists, its happiest hunting ground traditionally, to moderate nationalists too. 

Sinn Féin, whose vote fell, are doing their best to spin the Alliance surge as a happy consequence of their electoral hegemony. In 2014, Anderson won a commanding victory and was elected on the first count. Today she insisted that her own voters had lent their vote to Long in the knowledge that she would return to Brussels whatever happened. That isn't necessarily untrue, but in an election that saw the party slump in the Republic, a 3.3 per cent drop in vote share will give the party some cause for concern.

Yet in public it will insist the real victory is that Northern Ireland's electors returned two pro-Remain MEPs. Note that Sinn Féin, unlike the DUP, did not insist that its voters transfer to the other nationalist on the ballot, the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. The moderate nationalist party's vote held up but, despite a creditable campaign that majored on its pro-European credentials, they did not come close to challenging. Indeed, they were so far behind Alliance on first preferences that transfers would have made very little difference anyway. In the end, they were eliminated before Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice, a party that takes pride in its antediluvian, obstructionist stances on everything from the constitution to social issues.

The rise of Sinn Féin has given the SDLP, once the hegemonic party of Northern nationalism, much cause for concern. But tonight's result suggests they have been looking in the wrong direction. Alliance has mucled into the centre ground at their expense. One friend of the leadership puts it thus: "They are caught between not being centre-ground enough for liberal unionists, and not nationalist enough for moderate Sinn Féin voters." And so it proved: just two per cent of UUP voters transferred to the SDLP. That ought to worry a party whose electoral sine qua non has always been cross-community appeal. With 65 per cent of the SDLP's own transfers going to Alliance, the risks and opportunities ahead could not be clearer.

The UUP have even greater cause for concern. Northern Ireland's oldest party - for so long its natural governing force - were defending an MEP seat at this election, but capitulated. They were eliminated by the second count. Granted, the incumbent had retired, but their vote nonetheless cratered to such an extent that it raises existential questions for the party's future. Asked by the BBC why his party still existed, UUP leader Robin Swann could only put it down to their voters existing. Caught between the Alliance and DUP, Swann is finding that fewer and fewer such people do. 

And what of the DUP? It depends what question you're asking. From a party political perspective, it was, give or take, a good result. Arlene Foster's party consolidated its number of first preferences - up 0.9 per cent on 2014 - and, thanks to transfers from the UUP, Diane Dodds was the first candidate elected. But as far as the health of unionism as a political movement is concerned, the outlook is less clear. The vote share of other members of the soi-disant unionist family fell, and in the UUP's case fell precipitously. It's clear from Alliance's strong showing that an increasing number of voters reject the DUP's preferred feaming of the electoral question entirely. The appetite for a new, socially progressive politics will give the party's modernisers food for thought. The 2016 referendum could re-align politics in Northern Ireland as it appears to be doing in the rest of the UK.

Then there is the casus belli of last Thursday's poll: Brexit and Westminster's failure to deliver it. The DUP explicitly sought a mandate to reject the Irish backstop, and as far as they are concerned, they got it. No shift will be in the offing and any prospective Tory leader still needs to square that circle. But the result the EU will pay attention to is the clear majority - some 57 per cent - for parties who support the backstop. It's for that reason that, despite the vagaries of tonight's result, the dimensions of the question as Brussels sees it hasn't changed.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.