DUP loses seats as unionist vote splinters


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Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-UK party has suffered painful election losses in key constituencies, including the seat held by the Paisley family for more than 50 years, after a splintering of the unionist vote.

Sinn Féin, the pro-Irish unity party that is already the largest on Northern Ireland’s councils and in its Stormont Assembly, retained its seven seats.

The result makes it the region’s biggest party at Westminster, although Sinn Féin does not take up its seats in the House of Commons

But the upset of the night came from the small, hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party, which had forged an electoral alliance with Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party. Its leader, Jim Allister, dethroned Ian Paisley Jr, who had been the Democratic Unionist party MP for North Antrim since 2010.

Paisley had succeeded his father, the late Reverend Ian Paisley — the firebrand preacher who founded the DUP, grew it into the largest party and became the region’s first minister. He had held the seat since 1970.

Allister called his victory a “political earthquake of seismic proportions” and used his victory speech to thunder against the “partitioning of our nation by foreign EU borders” as a result of post-Brexit trade deals.

The DUP remains the largest pro-UK political grouping in Northern Ireland, but scored its worst-ever Westminster vote share, holding only five of the eight seats it won in 2019 by 8am on Friday.

“The big question for the DUP is are their glory days behind it?” asked Jon Tonge, politics professor at the University of Liverpool.

By contrast, Sinn Féin increased its majorities in all the seats it defended. Former Royal College of Nursing boss Pat Cullen lifted Sinn Féin’s majority in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to more than 4,500 from 57.

Pat Cullen
Former Royal College of Nursing boss Pat Cullen, centre, increased Sinn Féin’s majority in Fermanagh and South Tyrone to more than 4,500 from 57 © Niall Carson/PA

“The message of the people of the north of Ireland to the British government is that change is happening,” said Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin, which wants a poll on reunification in a decade. “It is time to plan, it is time to prepare for a new future together on this island. The people have spoken.”

Northern Ireland’s election picture is very different to Britain because Labour does not campaign in the region and the Conservatives typically score only a tiny share of the vote.

In a further blow to the DUP, Sorcha Eastwood of the Alliance party seized the Lagan Valley seat that was another unionist stronghold and had been held by former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. He is facing trial on historic sex charges, which he denies.

Eastwood, who voted in her wedding dress in 2017, called for her victory to be “the start of a new dawn . . . as a united community”. Her victory capped a year of personal difficulty after her husband Dale was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer.

But tempering Eastwood’s success, the Alliance party — which identifies as neither unionist nor nationalist in Northern Ireland’s deeply divided society — suffered two big defeats. Its leader Naomi Long lost out to DUP incumbent leader Gavin Robinson in Belfast East and deputy leader Stephen Farry lost his seat, beaten by independent unionist Alex Easton in North Down.

Unionists are now represented by three different parties and an independent at Westminster. Jonathan Buckley, the defeated DUP candidate in Lagan Valley, said the result was “the cost and consequence of [unionist] divisions”.

The small nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party, which is a sister to Keir Starmer’s party, held its two seats.



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