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Maurice Hayes: Outlook is ominous for North parties' survival

PRESIDENTS and monarchs may come and go, even in the latter case once in a hundred years. But it appears that the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), in Jim Allister's threat to be a thorn in the side of those who would compromise with republicanism, still expresses the siege mentality of the Solemn League and Covenant.

However, with elections out of the way for the next four years, the DUP will consider that they have seen off the TUV threat to their vote as Sinn Fein seem to have contained the dissidents (at least electorally).

The district council elections essentially confirmed the message of the Assembly poll that the two larger parties were consolidating their hold on Northern politics at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the SDLP, while the Alliance made modest if localised gains.

The DUP will be content to have confined TUV to six council seats overall. Sinn Fein, while winning 12 more seats, should be concerned at 2,000 votes for dissident-linked parties in west Belfast and 600 in Derry.

The Ulster Unionists lost 16 seats since the last election, the SDLP 14, but the trend for both is ominous. In 10 years the Ulster Unionists have lost a third of their councillors, the SDLP a quarter.

It may not be meltdown but, like Fianna Fail, they must be wondering where they are going, how to get there, and whether the journey is really necessary.

The Alliance Party has done well, gaining 22 seats, but mainly in the greater Belfast area, the scene of the Ulster Unionists' greatest disaster. From a party which dominated Belfast politics since before the Titanic was built, they have sunk to a derisory representation of three seats.

This is partly explicable by demographic change and population shift to the suburbs -- but they have done badly there too, becoming the party of rural, west Ulster.

This is bound to increase pressure on the leadership, and in both the UUP and SDLP there is simmering discontent with the current leaders.

A casualty in all this has been the voice of working-class Protestantism and loyalism, especially in Belfast, with the virtual disappearance of David Ervine's old party. It is a major concern that Protestant paramilitaries have failed to make the transition to politics of the bulk of their republican counterparts, and that young Protestants, already facing educational disadvantage and unemployment, should not see a future in politics either.

Meanwhile, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have been re-appointed as first and deputy first ministers.

In the allocation of executive seats, the DUP has retained four, Sinn Fein three, the UUP has lost one to the Alliance Party (who also retain Justice), and the SDLP hold one. Sadly an opportunity was lost to really tackle inefficiency by reducing the number of departments by three with the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance all losing a seat

Given the essential parochialism of Northern politics, the talk is less about the queen's visit to the Republic than whether Sinn Fein will extend the class (or classroom) war by re-nominating Caitriona Ruane as education minister.

Nevertheless the queen's visit is hugely important to progress in the North -- not the visit itself, but that it should go off smoothly and without major incident or disruption.

It also represents a working out of the Good Friday Agreement, the recognition of the Britishness of Northern Unionists, and respect for their cultural identity too. Parity of esteem works both ways.

Any failure by nationalist Ireland to respect the queen would be seen as a failure to honour the agreement, and would seriously set back the work of reconciliation in the North.

Generally, in the North, the hope is that the queen will be received with dignity and respect and that the visit will pass without major incident or disruption.

On a lighter note, I recall, on one of these occasions, watching a little old lady from east Belfast rushing from the crown to present the queen with a little knitted coat-hanger cover in red, white and blue with the message "Knitted for you, your Majesty, by the oldest patient in the Belvoir Park Hospital", and adding, with real Belfast directness: "Mind you, she doesn't do it for everybody -- only for important people. The last one she knit, she done it for Jimmy Saville!"

As Patrick Kavanagh would have it, Gods make their own importance -- or maybe not.

Irish Independent