Nationalist voters abandon SDLP in favour of abstentionist Sinn Féin
Analysis: DUP hand strengthened ahead of UK Brexit negotiations as Tories fail to get overall majority
Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill (centre), with newly elected Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone Barry McElduff MP (left) and newly elected MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew (right), at the Omagh Leisure Complex, Co Tyrone. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
The DUP and Sinn Féin virtually swept the boards in the Westminster election in Northern Ireland, so thoroughly did they clean up the political prizes that the only middle-ground politician still competing was the independent unionist MP for North Down Lady (Sylvia) Hermon.
Before Northern Ireland voters went to the polls on Thursday one-third of the 18 Northern MPs would be described as centrist politicians but now the harder line DUP and Sinn Féin are in total control.
The DUP and Sinn Féin started off respectively with 8 and four seats but now they have ten and seven seats, with Lady Hermon the lonely representative of a less tribal form of politics.
Ahead of the election we all reported that it was just about possible that the three SDLP and two Ulster Unionist Party MPs could lose their seats. But while predictions pointed to SDLP and UUP losses no one really believed the two parties would be wiped out altogether at Westminster.
The biggest surprise was John Hume’s protégé and former SDLP leader Mark Durkan losing in Foyle. If the SDLP couldn’t hold Derry what could it hold? Nothing was the answer. That marks a major change in Northern Ireland politics as does the Westminster demise of the UUP.
This was an emotional as well as political wrench for the SDLP. Hardly surprising therefore after Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion was elected in Foyle that Mr Durkan apologised to John and Pat Hume for losing the seat.
From the outset this was an Orange versus Green battle and as a consequence it was those in the middle who were punished. The fact that Sinn Féin came within one seat and fewer than 1,200 votes of the DUP in the March election meant that the two main parties were able to fight this election mainly on constitutional grounds.
If nationalists abandoned the SDLP and supported Sinn Féin then the prospect of a united Ireland would be brought closer, it was argued, and it seems many nationalists bought that argument.
Early days but looks like - with exception of Sylvia Hermon - we might get DUP/SF clean sweep & no Irish nationalist MPs sitting in Commons— Mark Devenport (@markdevenport) June 9, 2017
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore unionists were invited to ditch the UUP and throw in their lot with the DUP in order to counter Sinn Féin’s drive for a Border poll. And that is what they did.
It means that the two parties who were the main architects of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and the peace process - the SDLP and UUP - now have no representation in the House of Commons.
Indeed there is now no Northern nationalist MP who will sit in the House of Commons due to the fact that the seven Sinn Féin MPs who were elected early on Friday morning will not take their Westminster seats.
And Gerry Adams was explicit at the Belfast count centre in the Titanic Exhibition Centre that there is no prospect whatsoever of Sinn Féin abandoning its abstentionist stance. It was clear that even if Jeremy Corbyn comes looking for his old Sinn Féin friends to help propel him into 10 Downing Street that it is not going to happen. Still, Sinn Féin will be under considerable pressure to alter its stance particularly if it can be argued that entering the House of Commons might result in a much softer Brexit or even a second referendum.
Mr Dodds said that the DUP had no interest in being in a coalition government with the Conservatives, whoever should be leading it if its MPs decide to jettison Theresa May. But he indicated the DUP might be willing to shore up a new Tory government provided the Conservatives delivered an unspecified shopping list that his party would bring forward.
Mr Dodds said that the DUP would make its “influence felt” in Westminster for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. That could mean extra money for health, education, roads and jobs investment.
Sinn Féin gained an extra three seats while the DUP gained two, but it will be the Democratic Unionists who will be best pleased of the two parties. Throughout the election campaign Sinn Féin majored on “maintaining the momentum” of the March Assembly result when it came so close to the DUP.
But throughout the campaign DUP leader Arlene Foster said this would be a “wake up” election for unionists, and she was right. Sinn Féin witnessed its overall vote increase from 224,245 votes in March to 238,915 votes on Thursday - an increase of 14,670 votes.
The DUP however saw its overall vote shoot up from 225,413 votes in March to 292,316 votes on Thursday - a rise of almost 67,000 votes.
So, from the DUP being fewer than 1,200 votes ahead of Sinn Féin in March it is now 53,400 votes in front of its main rivals. That’s a majority that will dampen the prospects of Gerry Adams getting his Border poll, as he had been demanding and as he argued the Assembly result justified.
The question now is whether the ultra dominant DUP and Sinn Féin can negotiate a deal to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly. The Northern Secretary James Brokenshire has given the parties until June 29th to reach agreement.
Observing the demeanor and hearing the comments of DUP and Sinn Féin leaders it was hard to be optimistic that the gaps between them could be bridged in such a short time.
If they can’t end the deadlock then the next Northern Secretary - whoever he or she may be or what party he or she represents - will be faced with calling more Assembly elections or introducing direct rule from a Westminster preoccupied with matters such as Brexit and keeping a precarious British government upright.
Northern Ireland people voted seven times in the past three years and now they could be faced with more Assembly elections or another Westminster election in the coming months. No wonder one elderly gentleman exiting a South Belfast count centre on Thursday afternoon was moved to joke, “There now, I’ve exercised my democratic duty for another couple of weeks.”