Alex Kane: Bad day at polls turns DUP focus to Assembly and 'getting back to work' but at what price?
The scale of the DUP’s problem became apparent the moment the exit poll confirmed that Boris Johnson was returning with the Conservative’s largest majority for over 30 years.
He will view it as a thumping endorsement to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and push his Withdrawal Agreement through (complete with the border down the Irish Sea) as quickly as possible. He faced down the DUP a few weeks ago and doesn’t need their support anymore.
Their kingmaker role is gone. And that was just the beginning of the bad news.
Nigel Dodds is gone. For the past three years he has been de facto leader of the party and the key figure in Westminster. Emma Little Pengelly is gone. Gavin Robinson saw his majority collapse from over 8,0000 to just 1,817.
Alex Easton lost out to Stephen Farry in North Down. At the count centre in Belfast some DUP members were talking to me about Arlene Foster’s leadership and whether she should consider her position.
I haven’t seen the DUP in such low spirits since the result of the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement was announced in the King’s Hall.
The faces of many of the party’s key advisers and strategists told the story: it was the first time that most of them had seen a setback of this nature.
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Worse than the loss of the unionist majority in the Assembly in 2017 and worse than the loss of the second unionist MEP in the Euro elections a few months ago. And nothing, absolutely nothing, which could be presented as a silver-lining.
A campaign to get people onto the electoral register in both North and South Belfast was claimed to be successful, yet Dodds and Little Pengelly actually ended up with less votes than they won in 2017.
So, what does the party do now? How does it prevent Johnson from putting a border in the Irish Sea and the consequent reality of Northern Ireland being treated significantly differently from the rest of the United Kingdom? How does it prevent what DUP figures were describing as the undermining of the Union?
How does it slow down Sinn Fein’s constant demands for a border poll? How does it restore confidence to wider unionism?
It did get one little break. The UUP had a dreadful night, finding itself outpolled, for the second time this year, by the Alliance Party.
For all of Steve Aiken’s criticism of the DUP and the damage he says they have done to the Union, it was Alliance which benefited in constituency after constituency: indeed, Alliance even seems to have attracted some DUP votes. Which means that Aiken will find it difficult to land any new blows on the DUP when the dust settles and the parties trot off to Stormont on Monday morning to begin a new round of talks.
I suspect that both the DUP and UUP will be wary of an Assembly election in February if there is no Executive by January 13.
Alliance did extraordinarily well in places like Lagan Valley, East Antrim (where it beat Aiken by 10,169 - 5,475), Strangford and North Down; well enough, in fact, to pick up a few more seats and widen the non-unionist majority to more than the present 50.
Well enough to deprive the DUP of the keys to the First Minister’s office and push the UUP below the numbers required for automatic entry to the Executive.
All of which suggests that the DUP might now be very keen to reboot the Executive: keen enough to consider a compromise or two.
The alternative is direct rule and there’s no evidence that Johnson is willing to go down that road. The DUP would also be wary of the response from the leaders of next-generation loyalism (who have been behind the protest meetings and assorted anti pan-nationalist propaganda over the last few weeks) to anything perceived as concessions.
Yet the fact is that those meetings and propaganda didn’t deliver votes or seats. Which suggests that a majority of unionists don’t buy into that strategy.
The DUP must now tread carefully. Something which many of them acknowledged to me at the count centre.
The challenges they face are enormous. Their responses are not clear.
How did they get into this mess: how do they get out of it? It was interesting that many of their winning candidates emphasised the importance of restoring the Assembly and ‘getting back to work’, but didn’t mention what price they would pay for that return.
But they know that a price will be extracted.
Sinn Fein also had a worse night than they expected and will not be as cocky when the talks start as they might otherwise have been. So maybe, just maybe, there will be enough give and take between both parties (embracing the other three parties, too) to get something kick-started. But it won’t be easy.
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