Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Bad day at polls turns DUP focus to Assembly and 'getting back to work' but at what price?

John Finucane at the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
John Finucane at the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Nigel Dodds during the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
SDLP's Claire Hanna wins a seat in South Belfast at the General Election Count at the Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast during the Early hours of Friday morning. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Emma Pengelly and Arlene Foster during the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood is elected MP (Niall Carson/PA)
Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion pictured at the count centre in Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party with party leader Naomi Long after he won the North Down constituency in the UK General Election at the Aurora Aquatic and Leisure Complex, Bangor, Northern Ireland. Michael Cooper/PA Wire
Alex Easton, DUP pictured at the count centre in Bangor. Photo by Brian Little / Press Eye
Gavin Robinson with his wife Lindsey and party leader Arlene Foster pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Naomi Long during the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Michelle O'Neill and Paul Maskey pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Election count at Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast for Belfast East, Belfast South, Belfast West, Belfast North, East Antrim & South Down. Sammy Wilson pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Steve Aiken pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
The DUP’s Gregory Campbell is returned s MP for East Londonderry. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew pictured with Michelle ONeill at the count centre in Omagh after winning the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat. Photo by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
UUP Tom Elliott pictured at the count centre in Omagh. Photo by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has held his seat in Lagan Valley pictured at the count centre in Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt. Picture By: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Sinn Féin Francie Molloy is returned as MP for Mid Ulster. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Sinn Fein's Mickey Brady(centre) is returned as MP for Newry and Armagh. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
The DUP's Ian Paisley (left) is returned as MP for North Antrim. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 12th December 2019 General Election 2019 - Election count at Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt for Newry & Armagh, South Antrim, North Antrim, Upper Bann, East Londonderry, Foyle, Lagan Valley and Mid Ulster. The DUPÕs Paul Girvan(left) is returned as MP for South Antrim. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Chris Hassard, centre, pictured at the count centre. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 12th December 2019 - General Election 2019 - Election count at Aurora Leisure Complex, Bangor for Strangford and North Down. Jim Shannon, DUP with his mother Mona and wife Sandra after being elected in Strangford. Photo by Brian LittleÊ / Press Eye
The DUP's Carla Lockhart is returned as MP for Upper Bann and is pictured with her baby boy Charlie. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye.
Sinn Fein's Orfhlaith Begley pictured after she won her seat back in West Tyrone Photo by Stephen Hamilton / Press Eye.
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

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.

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Nigel Dodds during the General Election count in Belfast on December 12th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

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.

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Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party with party leader Naomi Long after he won the North Down constituency in the UK General Election at the Aurora Aquatic and Leisure Complex, Bangor, Northern Ireland. Michael Cooper/PA Wire

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.

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Arlene Foster embraces her deputy Nigel Dodds after he lost his seat (Liam McBurney/PA)

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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