Deirdre Heenan: The concept of ‘unionist seats’ has been consigned to history

Blinded by arrogance and old grievances, the DUP appears unable to read the room

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

The DUP's Ian Paisley was defeated in North Antrim, ending a 54-year grip on the seat by the Paisley family. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire (Niall Carson/Niall Carson/PA Wire)

A dull, lacklustre Westminster campaign has produced seismic changes to the political landscape in the north.

This election has upended politics here, revealing a new order. Old certainties have been swept away. These changes did not happen overnight but reflect a deep-seated dissatisfaction with tired, self-defeating arguments.

Sinn Fein completed a hat-trick of being the largest Northern Ireland party in local government, the assembly and Westminster. It retained its seven seats, only narrowly missing out on taking East Derry from Gregory Campbell.

The DUP has gone from holding the balance of power in 2017 with 10 MPs, to sending just five to the House of Commons. How did it all go so wrong for a party that looked as though it had an iron-clad grip on power and influence in London?

The party has been ravaged in its heartlands. The decades of believing that it had an automatic right, an entitlement, to hold some ‘safe’ seats has ended abruptly.

The DUP suffered a bruising set of results, losing three of its eight Westminster seats. The assault came in all directions, from the UUP, the TUV, the Alliance Party and its erstwhile colleague Alex Easton.

The shock of the night was undoubtedly the fall of the House of Paisley. Ian Paisley losing his seat is a plot twist that no-one had predicted.

Ian Paisley Jr watches a partial recount of votes for the North Antrim constituency at Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt (Niall Carson/PA
Ian Paisley Jnr watches a partial recount of votes for the North Antrim constituency, where he lost out to TUV leader Jim Allister (Niall Carson/PA)

This dramatic story line means that after 54 years, North Antrim is no longer in the hands of the Paisley dynasty. The only MP to withstand a recall petition in parliament has been taken out by his arch-nemesis, the TUV leader Jim Allister.

This change of guard means that for the first time since 1970 a Paisley will not sit in the House of Commons. The veteran DUP MP looked shell-shocked when he finally arrived at the count centre. Defeat was clearly not an outcome that he had considered.

Gone was the usual swagger and self-assured cockiness. The man who had boasted that he had the power to give “precise instructions” to Theresa May on her Brexit deal was a distant memory. Ironically, securing the support of the Reform UK leader Nigel Farage in an attempt to humiliate Jim Allister backfired spectacularly.

Outside the party, sympathy for outspoken maverick MP will be thin on the ground. Internally many in the party will be quietly relieved. The end of the Paisley dynasty may afford a reset, an opportunity to chart a new course. There will be few of his colleagues willing to send out a lifeboat to save his sinking political career.

One of the few bright spots for the DUP was its party leader retaining his seat in East Belfast. In a fourth rematch with Alliance leader Naomi Long, Gavin Robinson secured an increased majority of more than 2,500 votes.

Gavin Robinson held off the challenge of Alliance Party leader Naomi Long again in East Belfast. Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Inevitably this disastrous night for the DUP will lead to calls for greater unionist unity and co-operation to stop splitting the unionist vote. Wishful thinking. We have been here before, but unionism is more divided than ever.

Calls for realignment following electoral disappointments are a well-trodden path. This circling of the wagons completely misses the point. Unionist unity on what exactly? No surrender? Never, never, never? Not an inch?

The unionist vote is shrinking and increasing numbers of people are not interested in what they are selling. Aligning with the right wing of the Conservative party has been utterly disastrous.

On almost every major policy issue – the Good Friday Agreement, St Andrews Agreement, Renewable Heat Initiative, and Brexit – the DUP has made the wrong call. The party appears to have an uncanny knack of being at odds with the prevailing mood in the north. Blinded by arrogance and old grievances, it appears unable to read the room.

On almost every major policy issue, the DUP has made the wrong call. Blinded by arrogance and old grievances, it appears unable to read the room

Unionism is no longer a dominant force. The concept of ‘unionist seats” has been consigned to history. Without an acceptance of the fact that demographics and aspirations have changed, any talk of unity is nonsense.

A positive, progressive compelling vision is required which recognises the need to appeal to wider base. This is not about coalescing around old mantras but accepting new realities.

A new Labour administration in London provides an opportunity to find relevance and increased support. Sir Keir Starmer has already committed to implementing the Windsor Framework and has no appetite for re-fighting battles over the Irish Sea border.

Embracing the opportunities provided by dual market access and focusing on delivering economic prosperity and parity of esteem would be a good starting point.