The message to Sinn Féin and DUP is it’s time to get powersharing working again
The electorate showed no mercy to the DUP as it vented its anger over Brexit, the health service crisis and the cash-for-ash scandal
DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds at the Belfast count centre after losing his seat to Sinn Féin candidate John Finucane. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Big changes after the Westminster election in Northern Ireland. So, no surprise there.
Voters were annoyed with the DUP over Brexit, and probably other issues such as the cash-for-ash scandal and the crisis in the health service, and they let them know, loudly and cruelly, with no mercy shown.
But it was much worse than that. The SDLP’s Claire Hanna defeated the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly in South Belfast, which was expected, but Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry saw off the DUP’s Alex Easton in Lady (Sylvia) Hermon’s former seat of North Down, which was not.
Coming into this election the DUP held 10 seats, which it used to exert pressure and influence on the Conservative government; Sinn Féin had seven; and independent unionist Lady Hermon, who did not stand, held one.
After Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew narrowly took Fermanagh South Tyrone from the UUP’s Tom Elliott following a recount, the standing was the DUP on eight seats (down two) seven for Sinn Féin (as was), two for the SDLP (up two) and one for Alliance (plus one) – that is nine nationalists, eight unionists and one centre-ground MP.
Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds and other senior DUP figures must now rue not accepting former British prime minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement. Boris Johnson can do what he likes and bring in his Brexit deal, which the DUP says will mean an unacceptable border down the Irish Sea.
The “Boris Brexit deal” means that there will be free movement of goods and people on the island of Ireland, but certainly for goods – according to the DUP’s view of the deal – there will be checks between Stranraer and Larne.
All this symbolically is a punch in the solar plexus of unionism, and of the DUP in particular. The party, through its obdurate no-compromises-allowed pro-Brexit stance, will be seen as the authors of its own and unionism’s misery.
That point was hammered home by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who said one of the key messages of the election was that “we are heading towards a Border poll”.
She also said unionists shouldn’t be “alarmed or frightened”. But they will be.
While North Belfast made it a great night for Sinn Féin, that result rather disguises that its overall vote is down considerably in other constituencies. It was trounced in Foyle, where SDLP leader Colum Eastwood regained the seat for the party with a mammoth majority of 17,000, defeating outgoing MP Elisha McCallion.
And while the DUP’s share of the vote dropped 5.4 per cent from 2017, Sinn Féin performed even worse, its vote slipping by 6.7 per cent.
The message from voters, to both the DUP and Sinn Féin, was that in light of health pressures, lengthy waiting lists and many other problems caused by the absence of Stormont, it was time to get powersharing working again.
Of note is that the Alliance is now the third largest vote winner, after the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Many middle-ground remain unionists, despairing of the DUP and the UUP, decided to shift allegiance to Alliance. The fact that they eschewed pacts and competed in all 18 constituencies served Alliance well. The Alliance surge of the local government and European elections of earlier this year continues with pace. Its vote increased by 9 per cent from 2017.
It was quite a long night’s journey into morning. It is just about possible that when politicians dust themselves down after all the convulsions and high political theatre that some good may come of it all.
It would seem that the DUP and Sinn Féin have nowhere to go but back into Stormont. Both parties took hits and both need to demonstrate to the public that they are capable of governing. It would also assist Sinn Féin if it could be seen to make politics work north of the Border ahead of a general election in the Republic.
Julian Smith, the current Northern Secretary, seems to have a bit of a spark about him, and could motivate the politicians to get back to work after three years of Assembly idleness – although here it must be said there is no guarantee he will hold on to his job as there is some speculation that Johnson’s right-hand man Dominic Cummings is no fan of Smith.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney congratulated Johnson on his victory, and said “the Irish Government and my department now stand ready to seize the momentum and focus on getting Stormont up and running for all the people of Northern Ireland”.
The DUP and Sinn Féin will be the main players in making that possible, if it is possible.
Sinn Féin leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill said they would work to get the Assembly back, while Arlene Foster, who so far has not faced any real tilt at her leadership, tweeted with some humility on Friday night to those who supported the DUP and “to those who felt unable to support us yesterday” that the party was “listening”.
“I will be at the talks on Monday. We need a willing partner, though,” she added.
On Monday, therefore, it is once more into the breach; the tedious but so necessary business of talking to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly begins again.