DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson couldn’t resist his “I told you so” opportunity late on Friday night.
It was after Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald in one of her first interviews, on arriving North for the Sinn Féin celebrations, said a Border poll “would be possible within a five-year time frame” and preparation needed to “start now”.
Donaldson’s response was: What did you expect? “The first speech is not about the cost of living or fixing our NHS, delivering more GPs or 30 hours free child care but it is about a divisive Border poll within five years,” he tweeted.
“There you have it. No one can say they weren’t warned!”
An understandable reaction but as DUP founder Ian Paisley used to say, sour grapes, so to speak, “doesn’t butter any parsnips”.
This was a significantly and symbolically damaging day for unionism. One-hundred-and-one years after the formation of Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin achieving pole position can’t be dismissed.
As Donaldson noted, Sinn Féin will seize on this “seismic” moment, as some Sinn Féiners have described it, and accelerate the push for a unity referendum, not to mention their elation at being in line for the first minister post.
When you round up the figures the percentage vote for nationalist parties – Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Aontu – was 40 per cent, the same as the 40 per cent vote for the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, figures that will boost those agitating for a Border plebiscite sooner rather than later. Add in the two independent unionists elected and that brings the unionist figure to 43 per cent but it is still too close for comfort.
That will depress unionists. It naturally also depressed Donaldson that the effective campaign run by TUV leader Jim Allister cut into the DUP vote contributing to the loss of high-ranking DUP people such as Mervyn Storey in North Antrim and Peter Weir in Strangford.
And it was an impressive result for the TUV. In some constituencies such was its first-preference vote that in most circumstances transfers would have brought its candidates over the line, but the trouble for Allister is that his party is not transfer friendly.
TUV people played a great game but it was deeply frustrating for them that having got so close there was no silverware. Normally, parties would describe this vote as a springboard for future electoral gains but the difficulty is that essentially the TUV remains a one-man operation. Allister is 69 and the question is does he have the energy to go through all of this again?
And if Allister sees the TUV vote as a victory of sorts Donaldson surely would describe it as a pyrrhic one.
Implicit in Donaldson’s unionist unity tweet – a theme of his campaign – was that the TUV should have stayed out of the battle and that in practice Allister’s party were “splitters” of unionism, not only gifting the big victory to Sinn Féin but placing the even bigger constitutional question more centrally on the political agenda.
Allister’s chief aide Sammy Morrison was unimpressed. “The fact is we helped maximise the unionist vote, we gave them a reason to go out and vote, and anyway TUV transfers will have gone to the DUP.”
Morrison also argued that the anti-protocol rallies rather than raising community and political tensions were a “safety valve” because they allowed loyalist and unionist anger and political disenchantment to be “vented”.
It was a poor election too for the UUP, but it could have been a lot worse. On Friday there were real concerns that former leader Mike Nesbitt and current leader Doug Beattie would lose their seats but they came through in the finals stages.
Politicians now turn their attention to what happens next, and that may take time. The DUP hasn’t definitively answered the question as to whether it would serve in the Northern Executive with Michelle O’Neill as first minister and Donaldson as deputy. There is even the possibility that Donaldson might hold on to his House of Commons seat and allow someone to be temporarily co-opted to his Assembly seat in Lagan Valley. That wouldn’t say a lot about the prospects of Stormont getting back to business in the short term.
But senior DUP people such as Donaldson and Gregory Campbell have emphasised that they are democrats, the apparent implication being that they would accept O’Neill as deputy first minister. The late Martin McGuinness suggested about seven years ago that the titles should be “joint first minister” – the two positions are co-equal – which could solve a big problem here, but so far Sinn Féin hasn’t indicated it is willing to be so magnanimous.
But even were that issue resolved we are brought back to the awful legacy of Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol. Something major must be done about the protocol before it would return to the Executive, has been the consistent line from Donaldson and the DUP.
This brings the Irish and British governments smack back into the equation. It is hardly a priority for Boris Johnson, particularly given that on the eve of the election his Northern secretary Brandon Lewis infuriated the DUP and appeared to undermine their electoral position by indicating British movement against the protocol, contrary to expectations, would not now be part of the Queen’s speech on Tuesday. This is when future British government plans and policy are outlined. Instead, London would seek to find resolution through continuing negotiation with the European Union. Johnson still could act unilaterally on the protocol but that would just create a wider pan-European problem.
A big responsibility to return the DUP and the other parties to Stormont therefore will rest with Dublin. That will mean a bit of EU pragmatism and movement on the protocol. On Friday Taoiseach Micheál Martin “acknowledged that there are concerns around the protocol” but insisted the so far intractable issue could be resolved. “The landing zone is there,” he said.
That runway appears rather fogbound at the moment but if a damaged and hurt unionism is to be brought back on board with the powersharing principles of the Belfast Agreement, the air must be cleared over the protocol.