By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
A lot of emphasis on the fact that, after Thursday’s election, for the first time there are more nationalist MPs than unionist; Sinn Féin and the SDLP outnumber the DUP 9-8.
True, it’s more evidence of the inexorable decline in numbers of the north’s dwindling unionist population and the figures will be a psychological blow to unionists, especially those who think they own this place.
However, just as striking has been the astonishing switch in Belfast, historically the focal point of unionist opposition to all-Ireland arrangements, the headquarters of the UUC and the UVF alike. Suddenly, from there being three unionist MPs to one nationalist in Belfast, Thursday’s election has flipped that to three nationalist MPs to one unionist.
For some time Belfast has been a nationalist city, but the archaic British first past the post electoral system masked that reality. Now it’s there for all to see and future results will confirm the change. Yet another transformative psychological blow to unionists.
What made it worse - or best, depending on your political persuasion - was the dismissal of Depooty Dawds in north Belfast, the architect of the DUP’s stupid extreme hard Brexit policy. There he was, a member of the Vote Leave board, masquerading as someone representing North Belfast, a Remain constituency. It was right that he should have been defeated because all across the north the DUP was punished for the policy Depooty Dawds had advocated, a policy certain to impoverish people here and which has ended in what loyalists correctly describe as heading towards an economic united Ireland.
However, it was unionists who punished the DUP when they switched in their thousands to the liberal unionist Alliance party. The best example of this punishment is North Down where Alliance denied the DUP what they had expected to be compensation for their certain loss of South Belfast. Other constituencies also showed their discontent with the DUP policy. Most obvious was Lagan Valley, the seat of Jeffrey ‘I could live with 40,000 job losses’ Donaldson. There Donaldson’s share of the vote plummeted 16 per cent while the Alliance share rocketed 17.7 per cent.
Surveying the wreckage across the north Donaldson announced unionists ‘must reflect on the future’ and then revealed his cunning plan - agreed candidates across the north to stop ‘splintering unionist votes’, the 2019 version of count the Catholics. No question of changing policy or asking why liberal unionists have deserted the DUP for Alliance.
On the other side of the fence there is much for Sinn Féin to think about. Across the north their share of the vote fell by 6.7 per cent. Admittedly that figure is artificially large because SF stood aside in South and East Belfast and North Down. On the other hand, they were stuffed in Foyle where their vote share collapsed by a whopping 19 per cent which contributed mightily to the reduced SF total. There were signs of disaffection in Derry in the May council elections when SF lost seats, but they did nothing about it. On Thursday’s figures SF would be lucky to win two seats in Foyle in an assembly election.
An assembly election is just what is likely if the talks scheduled for next week fail to make progress by mid-January, and there is no reason to presume they will. Fine words by Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill before a Westminster election do not translate into a deal satisfying both DUP and SF. Neither party wanted to appear intransigent when voters were demanding movement. Now, having lost all leverage in Westminster the DUP is faced with the certainty of Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement going through. An Irish Sea border inevitably results. It would be a mistake to underestimate unionist opposition to such an outcome especially given the DUP’s history of caving in to loyalists and the Orange order.
There’s another big rally planned for December 18. In that context what chance the DUP making a deal with Sinn Féin?