Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: A harsh wake-up call that unionists will need to heed

It was a dire night for unionism and especially the DUP. The party which was at the heart of the Brexit debate at Westminster paid the price for its enthusiasm for leaving the European Union when Northern Ireland voted emphatically to Remain
It was a dire night for unionism and especially the DUP. The party which was at the heart of the Brexit debate at Westminster paid the price for its enthusiasm for leaving the European Union when Northern Ireland voted emphatically to Remain

Editor's Viewpoint

It was a dire night for unionism and especially the DUP. The party which was at the heart of the Brexit debate at Westminster paid the price for its enthusiasm for leaving the European Union when Northern Ireland voted emphatically to Remain.

Not only did the party lose two seats, including that of its Westminster leader and Brexit strategist Nigel Dodds, but it also failed to capture the North Down constituency which must have felt like another defeat.

The party saw its vote share drop - as did Sinn Fein - in what was a clear statement by the electorate that voters are unhappy with how the two big parties have conducted themselves at a time of international and local crisis.

Both can argue that they still remain far and away the largest parties, with the DUP having eight MPs and Sinn Fein seven, but they would be foolish to imagine that they can take their pre-eminent position for granted in future.

As well as a criticism of the DUP's amateurish handling of its influence at Westminster during the Brexit civil war, and Sinn Fein's abstentionist stance which left nationalism voiceless in the Commons, the two parties' dogged refusal to restore devolution for nigh on three years as public services crumbled got them a deserved and sharp rebuke from voters.

And that allowed a Lazarus-like revival by the SDLP, which won back by thumping majorities two of the Westminster seats it lost in the last general election, and showed that South Down may not be gone forever.

And even more astonishingly, Alliance won the North Down seat by a comfortable majority and showed the value of standing in every constituency by increasing its vote for the third successive election.

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The middle ground has suddenly found its voice and that surely must be a good long-term development in politics here, especially in PR polls where every vote is significant.

The DUP may complain that it lost North and South Belfast to pan-nationalist pacts but it is a tactic which it also used, unsuccessfully, in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. Politics is about pragmatism as well as idealism, no matter how we may deplore certain tactics. Instead, the party put focus on its leadership and its political strategy.

The Ulster Unionist Party remains largely in the doldrums and there is no doubt that unionism must now begin to seriously debate how to face the challenges of the future. It is now in the minority in both the Assembly and in the number of MPs and it can no longer stand Canute-like against the tide of an increasing nationalist population.

Securing the Union does not rely on crying that it is in danger but in making Northern Ireland an inclusive society in which everyone feels comfortable. That will not be an easy task post-Brexit which Boris can shape to his own will and which has negative financial implications for the province.

But first of all, dialogue to restore Stormont begins on Monday. The parties know in no uncertain terms what the electorate expects and they must deliver.

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