Late Friday night, Upper Bann provided a snapshot of all the difficulties facing trade unionism.
ith the safe return of Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd to Stormont, an uncomfortable night lay ahead for two of unionism’s biggest hitters.
Top of the list was Ulster Unionist leader himself Doug Beattie, who faced uncomfortable questions as he arrived at Magherafelt’s Meadowbank Sports Arena on Friday in a flurry of flashes as a media scrum brewed crowded around him.
Well short of the quota to retain his seat in a constituency that had already seen a high-profile victim of Stormont in SDLP’s Dolores Kelly, the sand beneath Beattie’s feet seemed to be shifting.
“It was a hell of a fight,” he said when, in the middle of a hot and scorching Saturday afternoon in the counting arena as temperatures soared to 32 degrees, he crossed the line thanks to transfers of eliminated TUV candidate Darrin Foster, despite the TUV urging Unionist voters not to back him after the UUP leader pulled out of rallies to protest NI protocol.
Beattie had sweated.
“My heart is still beating, I must say,” he admitted.
Labeled a traitor as TUV and DUP led rallies against protocol took place in the constituency following his decision not to participate, one of his campaign posters was displayed with a noose around his neck.
It’s been a tough few weeks for Beattie, who has also sparked controversy in the region with comments in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph that he would like to see an alternative sports anthem “that takes nothing away from God Save the Queen”. The TUV launched the attack, calling it “out of touch with rank and file unionism”.
And the longer the attacks on Beattie continued, the more trade unionism as a whole was threatened. United we stand, divided we fall were the calls. But rather than heed their own advice from all sides, the divisions have widened.
On Friday night, an exuberant John O’Dowd seemed confident that fellow Sinn Fein man Liam Mackle was in place to join him at Stormont.
Beattie was under threat, so for a moment onlookers believed there was Diane Dodds, although Jonathan Buckley and TUV surplus saw her pass the post safely.
But the union split in Haut-Bann had almost left the door ajar. This is something that has been reflected across the country.
Overall, the three Unionist seats here have been held. But it’s where the votes went that counts and it nearly cost the UUP leader his seat.
Votes in Upper Bann also shifted towards the Alliance, with Eoin Tennyson claiming the fifth seat – a first for the party in the region.
Trade unionism slipped through the narrow gap that remained.
It was all so far removed from the ‘Beattie rebound’ that generated such a positive atmosphere around the party when he took the lead last year, but after those heights the trampoline descent threatened to eject him over the top. above the safety netting on the seat of his pants.
As he sat down to reflect, Beattie was in a much more positive mood on Saturday. From being on the defensive, he stabilized the ship, but remained unrepentant that the hard choices he made during the campaign were the ones he had to make.
“There is always a chance that someone loses. In Upper Bann I had to make some unpopular decisions as party leader and that may well have had an effect on me personally,” he said.
“When you are the leader of a party, you have to lead. You have to make those decisions. I won’t be distracted from making those good decisions.
He also remained steadfast in his belief that “angry unionism” was not a winning approach.
“I believe in a confident, positive and optimistic trade unionism. Our message needs to be tougher and we need to get it out there,” he said.
“The only way to fix unionism is to change the way we do business. Angry and negative trade unionism discourages people. It might take a while to change that. But we have to.
The messages from all walks of trade unionism continue to be that trade unionism needs to be fixed. Agreeing on how to fix it will be the main issue. They’re all calling for union unity, but as Upper Bann has shown, that’s easier said than done.
The two DUP candidates, Mr Buckley and Ms Dodds, reiterated the need for the government to urgently address the issues surrounding the NI protocol. This message does not change.
And the TUV has shown it can be a force in the election. The concern for trade unionism is that the TUV as a party may be able to make gains from its position on the NI protocol, but at what cost to trade unionism in general?
In Upper Bann, TUV contestant Darrin Foster polled well. But where the votes went nearly gave Sinn Fein an extra bonus seat.
And when Mr O’Dowd spoke as the final results were announced, you could sense some disappointment that Liam Mackle had only just not joined him in the Assembly.
While Beattie castigated unionist anger, Ms Dodds was also annoyed by negativity from the SDLP, who she said had targeted her with election posters in the constituency, calling it a direct fight between her and Dolores Kelly .
“It was particularly against the DUP,” she said. “The lesson should be to talk about your own campaign and what you have to offer, don’t focus on targeting someone else.”
This could also apply to Mr. Beattie, who had been a target within his own union community.
Where unionism goes from here is the big question, but for the UUP leader, he is still determined to embrace the positives.
“It will be like trying to turn an oil tanker around,” he admitted. “It might take time, but I still believe in this positive and optimistic trade unionism.
“People can question my leadership all they want. I’ve set the direction. It’s up to the party to decide the leader, but I believe it’s me. We have a set direction of travel that we have to follow.
While Beattie lived to fight another day, it was a sad and silent farewell for Dolores Kelly, who was first elected MP in 2003.
There were hugs and goodbyes on Friday night when it became clear his vote did not hold after what had perhaps been the most bitter constituency battle.
Beattie was relieved that she hadn’t joined her as she walked out the exit doors on Friday night Magherafelt night. Saturday was a different day. And Monday will be yet another day.