What happened on Northern Ireland’s high-drama election night

Celebrating the DUP’s wins with Peter Robinson. Niall Carson/PA

Against the decapitation of Labour and Liberal Democrat big guns and the electoral tsunami that swept through Scotland, the Westminster results in Northern Ireland were rather swamped in the election night coverage.

But across the Irish Sea there unfolded a night of considerable drama, with shocks and upsets all its own. There may have been no landslide, but by the standards of Northern Ireland’s often glacial Westminster landscape, there was some serious movement.

Comeback: the UUP

In terms of seat share, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) won the largest gains. After drawing a blank in 2010 with a disastrous electoral link-up with the British Conservatives, the party secured two seats at the expense of both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin.

Indeed, the UUP provided the headline results of this election. Danny Kinahan pipped the DUP incumbent, William McCrea, to the South Antrim seat. And in one of the most hotly contested seats in the entire nation, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Tom Elliott triumphed over Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew by just 530 votes.

So all in all, the UUP had a great election – a rare triumph for a party that’s been mired in a deep electoral malaise since the early 2000s.

Holding steady: the SDLP

Another election winner was the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which retained its full 2010 complement of three seats in Foyle, South Down and South Belfast. While the first two seats were never really in play, the third was a compelling contest, with SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell facing down challenges from the DUP and Sinn Féin.

South Belfast was something of a pyrrhic victory for McDonnell, whose margin was curtailed from 14,026 to 9,560. On the whole, however, the SDLP’s goal of “what we have we hold” was achieved, and it’ll be toasting its performance.

Ups and a down: the DUP

It was a night of ups and downs for the DUP, with one particularly sour note.

Gavin Robinson’s victory in East Belfast over the incumbent Alliance MP, Naomi Long, was the party’s signature result, avenging party leader Peter Robinson’s sensational demise in 2010. This gain, however, owed a lot to the DUP-UUP pact.

The DUP takes East Belfast.

The DUP retained its seat in Upper Bann, fending off a considerable challenge from the UUP, and returned Jeffrey Donaldson in Lagan Valley with an enormous majority of 13,000. Nigel Dodds, the DUP leader in Westminster, also triumphed in North Belfast, a contest overshadowed by acrimonious exchanges between Dodds and his main rival, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly.

But then there was the gallingly close defeat in South Antrim, lost by a margin of just 949.

Overall, it was a pretty good election for the DUP. Much political capital will be extracted from its topping of the poll in terms of vote-share – wrestling that crown from Sinn Féin. Boasting the largest mandate is of great symbolic significance in the divided politics of Northern Ireland.

Disappointment: Sinn Féin

Indeed, Sinn Féin had a pretty disappointing night. That it would hold its seats in the nationalist citadels of West Belfast, Mid Ulster and West Tyrone was a virtual racing certainty. Despite facing a unionist pact in Newry and Armagh, the party’s victory in that constituency was also never truly in doubt.

It will be Michelle Gildernew’s narrow defeat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone which will have stung Sinn Féin the most.

The Fermanagh and South Tyrone declaration.

Holding this seat was the party’s chief priority and absorbed much of its energies and resources. The paper-thin margin of 530 votes is little comfort, especially given the 2,732 votes polled by the SDLP. If there had been a nationalist pact, Gildernew would probably have been returned.

The unionist pact also claimed the scalp of the Alliance’s sole MP, Naomi Long, in East Belfast. Despite seeing her vote-share actually increasing from 2010, Long was undone by the clear run provided to the DUP by the UUP (and other smaller unionist parties).

The Alliance Party may find some respite in the 2.2% jump in its overall vote-share – a development which augurs well for the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly elections. The biggest question now for the Alliance is what’s next for its deputy leader and biggest star, Naomi Long.

Unionist success

One of the biggest stories of the election in Northern Ireland, therefore, was the pact struck between the two main unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, in four constituencies: Newry and Armagh, North Belfast, East Belfast, and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

This deal was lambasted by critics for supposedly reducing these seats to a “sectarian headcount”, but whether or not that’s fair, it worked. In three of the four seats that it was deployed, the pact helped net a victory for the unionist candidate – not least in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where the margin was paper-thin. Gavin Robinson’s victory in East Belfast also owed a lot to the UUP’s tactical decision to back off.

That success means unionist pacts will probably be a routine feature of future Westminster contests in Northern Ireland, and perhaps also at Assembly and local government level. It also adds to the pressure on the nationalist parties to adopt a similar tactic.

For now, the SDLP remains publicly opposed to striking electoral deals with Sinn Féin. The abiding orange and green hue of politics of Northern Ireland could, however, become even more pronounced in the years to come.

What now?

Thanks to projections of a hung parliament, plenty of pre-election commentary speculated over the DUP’s potential to be a kingmaker at Westminster. But now the Tories have returned a surprise majority, it’s hard to see the DUP playing a central role on the national stage.

The Conservatives’ working majority has torpedoed the DUP’s plan to extract as many concessions for Northern Ireland as it could from a Westminster government. DUP support is no longer the indispensable crutch for the Tories that it was being mooted to be.

That said, the Conservative majority is still slim, and given the prospect of backbench rebellions on assorted issues (particularly Europe), it will surely be subject to instability. The DUP and UUP’s MPs could yet be called upon to support a faltering Cameron government. If that happens, the question will be what the DUP expects in return for such assistance.

The DUP’s fall from a kingmaker to bit-player also has potential consequences for the health of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The outgoing coalition’s welfare reform measures, especially the wildly unpopular bedroom tax, are still a clear stick in the spokes of Stormont. A strong DUP propping up a Tory government would have been in a position to extract some concessions on welfare reform.

That now seems unlikely. All things proceeding steadily, Northern Ireland will be expected to implement the Tory austerity package in full – and for all it spent the campaign playing up its potential influence in London, the DUP can do little about it.

Facts matter. Your tax-deductible donation helps deliver fact-based journalism.