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For the first time, Northern Ireland has more nationalist than unionist MPs

There were gains for the SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Féin during a bad night for the DUP.

It was a good night for pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland. Claire Hanna of the SDLP defeated the DUP in Belfast South.
It was a good night for pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland. Claire Hanna of the SDLP defeated the DUP in Belfast South.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

WITH ALL OF the results declared in the North’s 18 constituencies, the DUP has emerged as the biggest casualty of the election. 

The DUP now has 8 MPs, down from 10 MPs in the last election. Sinn Féin stay the same on 7, a result they’ll be happy with. The SDLP now has two MPs, and the Alliance Party has one in Lady Sylvia Hermon’s former constituency. 

Yet while other parties enjoyed major successes – Alliance and the SDLP in particular – the prospect of a Boris Johnson majority means that the Northern Irish MPs can no longer hold the balance of power in Westminster. 

Northern Ireland, which experts say will be hit worst by Brexit, now seems destined to be pushed to the periphery of the debate. 

This doesn’t mean the election isn’t highly significant. For the first time, nationalist parties have more MPs than unionist parties – a major shift in the North’s politics. 

But Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, whose party enjoyed a major coup in North Belfast against Nigel Dodds as well as a crushing defeat in Foyle, put it best at around 4am on Friday morning.

“As it turns out, nobody is going to stop Boris. As we had said, unfortunately no Irish MPs can stop Brexit,” Mary Lou McDonald said.

All Northern parties – whether they were Remain or Leave – had banked on another hung parliament where every vote would count.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood had stressed in the final Northern Ireland debate on Tuesday night that every seat would matter as he encouraged voters not to back Sinn Féin, which doesn’t take its seats. 

Similarly, the DUP – which had already been burned by Boris Johnson’s broken promise over a border in the Irish Sea – argued that only by re-electing the party’s candidates could Northern Irish voters determine the shape of the final Brexit deal. 

This morning, it’s clear that probably won’t be the case. Boris Johnson’s thumping majority ensures that the confidence and supply arrangement negotiated between the DUP and Theresa May in 2017 is now dead, erasing any real DUP influence over what happens next in Brexit. 

Not that this reality has destroyed all traces of optimism. Sammy Wilson, the party’s Brexit spokesperson, suggested that Johnson may still find himself needing DUP support in the months to come.

general-election-2019 Arlene Foster consoles Nigel Dodds after the lost his North Belfast seat. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

“A big majority could mean that Boris Johnson can be bullish with the EU when it comes to negotiations and if he does do that, the problems that the current deal will cause Northern Ireland could disappear,” he said. 

Stormont

“This is a story about the revival of the SDLP, but it is more about the message and the desires of our city and the people of the north generally,” Colum Eastwood said this evening. 

We heard you loud and clear, we know you want someone to go to Westminster to fight your case.

Eastwood isn’t wrong – his election and that of Claire Hanna are major moments for a party that had been facing possible extinction since its electoral wipe out in 2017. 

But there is no doubt that this is not the result the SDLP, which made Brexit a central issue, wanted or needed. 

Indeed, expect Sinn Féin to repeat its claim that it is futile to expect MPs in the North to wield any influence in the House of Commons. 

What this means is that all parties could be eyeing a return to Stormont. With negotiations pencilled in for Monday, many candidates referenced the need to get the Assembly up and running against after nearly three years of sitting dormant. 

It was no accident that Jeffrey Donaldson used his victory speech to call for this exact thing. And while this isn’t the first time his party has expressed a desire to get the North’s government working again, after having watched the DUP’s parliamentary sway corrode over the course of the evening, the idea of returning to Stormont might seem even more tempting. 

“I think the people of Northern Ireland are giving us a very clear message, to all the political parties, that they want us to get back around the table and to agree to restore our devolved government,” he said.

“It would be the best Christmas present for the people of Northern Ireland.”

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