Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Friday the 13th horror story will give both Sinn Fein and the DUP a fright in event of a snap January election

SDLP and Alliance were the big winners as voters turned to middle ground at main parties' expense, says Alban Maginness

Colum Eastwood
Colum Eastwood
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

In the early hours of Friday, December 13, the political tide turned on the DUP and Sinn Fein. The election results for both parties represented a punishment beating from a frustrated and impatient electorate. Although overdue, this is a most welcome development which has the potential to change the politics of this region in the medium term.

In stark terms, neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein lost much by way of actual seats. Sinn Fein won seven seats and the DUP eight, after losing two seats in Belfast and failing to capture Lady Sylvia Hermon's vacated North Down seat.

In pro-Remain North Down, Alliance's Stephen Farry, in a mischievous twist, stole the seat from under the noses of the DUP.

Sinn Fein lost its Foyle seat in a humiliating defeat to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. The impact of this victory has hugely re-energised the party, which for too long has languished in the doldrums.

It has deeply damaged Sinn Fein and, in particular, punctured the myth that that party was an unstoppable political force.

Without the convincing victory of John Finucane in North Belfast, where he ousted Nigel Dodds, this election would have been widely seen as a poor result for Sinn Fein.

The party was lucky to retain both Fermanagh and South Tyrone and South Down, which will probably fall to the SDLP in a future election.

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But there is a clearer and more menacing message for Sinn Fein, and that is their overall drop in support across all of the constituencies.

Their total vote was down by 6.7% across the North. Ominously for them, this follows on from their vote having dropped in the European election by 30,000.

By contrast, their rivals in the SDLP scored an overall increase of 3% and significantly increased support in most contested seats.

Stephen Farry
Stephen Farry

Clearly, there is a very significant message being sent by the people to Sinn Fein. Given these significant decreases, vital Sinn Fein seats are at risk in any future Assembly election.

The loss of Nigel Dodds's seat in North Belfast was a particularly grievous blow to the DUP.

Their leader at Westminster (and, some would say, de facto DUP leader since 2017) paid a mighty price for his misguided and damaging support for Brexit.

The additional loss of Emma Little-Pengelly in South Belfast represents a double blow for the DUP in the city and says much about their defiant attitude to the local pro-Remain majority.

Less dramatic, but probably more significant, was the slashing of the DUP majority of Gavin Robinson's East Belfast seat from 8,000 to 1,800 by Alliance leader Naomi Long.

The DUP's denial of the pro-Remain majority is a major cause of their downfall.

Like Sinn Fein, the DUP also suffered significant vote losses, even in its most staunch strongholds.

For example, Ian Paisley lost more than 7,000 votes. Jim Shannon's vote also fell by 6,000. There are several other examples of vote losses throughout the constituencies.

If it comes to an early Stormont election, this decline will continue and some of their most marginal seats will undoubtedly be at risk.

The DUP's overall vote was down by 5.4% and this follows their loss of votes in the European election in May of this year.

By contrast, the Alliance Party not only had a notable triumph in North Down but increased its total vote across the North by 8.8%, making serious inroads in areas outside Belfast. Now, with almost 17% of the overall vote, Alliance represents a real challenge to both unionist parties.

Alliance is now the party of choice for those unionists who are pro-Remain, liberal and accommodating.

They reject the sectarian outlook of the DUP and have simply given up in despair with the confused, and confusing, Ulster Unionists.

They are also embarrassed by the various scandals involving the DUP in government and its ambiguous attitude to loyalist paramilitary elements.

These are open-minded unionists who want the institutions to work and who want to see cross-community partnership in our politics.

So, for the first time in years, the people have openly expressed their discontent with both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

This discontent will continue and both the Alliance Party and the SDLP will benefit from it.

This is why it is likely that the Assembly will be restored after Christmas. The DUP and Sinn Fein realise that they must re-establish the Assembly before January 13 or face potentially damaging Assembly elections.

The proposed calling of Assembly elections by Secretary of State Julian Smith will henceforth no longer be treated as an empty threat as the current talks for the restoration of devolution proceed.

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