The battle for Belfast North felt like a throwback to the Troubles, with dirty tricks, gory posters and sectarian rhetoric. It pitted the Democratic Unionist party’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, against Sinn Féin’s rising star, John Finucane, in Northern Ireland’s most bitter contest.
In a possible first for a UK election, a candidate was outed as a public urinator. Police caught Finucane, the mayor of Belfast, peeing outside city hall one night after he was locked out of his office with a full bladder, it emerged. Puns about who leaked the leak provided fleeting comic relief.
Finucane got the last laugh by toppling Dodds. Reaction across the constituency was passionate – and binary.
“Fantastic, long overdue,” said Kevin Mullan, 53, a resident of the republican stronghold of Ardoyne. “Unionism has this mindset of telling nationalists and republicans what to do – those days are gone and aren’t coming back.”
But a few blocks away in the Mountainview Tavern, a loyalist pub on Shankill Road, people bristled at mention of the new MP.
He was a moral affront, an IRA sympathiser, said Tommy Haggan, 60, a painter and decorator. But Northern Ireland would remain British, he said. “There can’t be a united Ireland because they [in the Republic] don’t want a million disgruntled loyalists.”
Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, blamed the result on a “pan-nationalist” front: “The demography was against us.” It was a coded way of saying that Catholics ganged up on Protestants, of two tribes locked in a zero-sum contest.
But that familiar narrative was just one part of the story in Northern Ireland last week. Outside Belfast, in constituency after constituency, a third group – the “neithers” – asserted itself as a growing political force.
The Alliance, a centrist, non-aligned party that rejects nationalist and unionist labels, won 16.8% of the vote, an 8.9% surge from the last election, making it the third biggest party after the DUP and Sinn Féin. Previously it was fifth biggest, behind the Ulster Unionist party and the nationalist SDLP.
Sinn Féin and the DUP have both interpreted the results as punishment for their failure to restore power-sharing at Stormont
Its deputy leader, Stephen Farry, won the seat of North Down, which the DUP had expected to win. Alliance candidates elsewhere drew bigger than expected shares of the vote, notably in Belfast East, where the party’s leader, Naomi Long, came close to taking a DUP seat.
The results consolidated an Alliance breakthrough in council and European elections last May, when Long became an MEP, and served as a rebuke to rivals who focused on constitutional and identity issues.
It was a terrible election for the DUP, whose support dropped by 5.4%. In addition to Dodds, the party lost Emma Little-Pengelly to the SDLP’s Claire Hanna in Belfast South, whittling the DUP’s Westminster contingent to eight.
Outside north Belfast it was also a grim election for Sinn Féin, whose support fell 6.8%. In Derry, Elisha McCallion lost her seat in a landslide for the SDLP’s leader, Colum Eastwood. Other Sinn Féin MPs held on, but with reduced majorities. The party has seven MPs, the same as before. But combined with the SDLP’s two seats, this means nationalists for the first time have more seats than unionists – another milestone in the demographic tilt towards a Catholic majority.
However, this does not signify a clamour for a border poll, let alone an inexorable march towards Irish unification. Anger at Brexit and the DUP’s handling of it mobilised Remainers, including some unionists, to punish the party. In some constituencies it also emboldened the SDLP and Sinn Féin to form an electoral pact under a Remain banner.
Sinn Féin and the DUP have both interpreted the results as punishment for their failure to restore power-sharing at Stormont, which collapsed three years ago in acrimony between the two parties. Voters are furious that assembly members are still getting paid while public services atrophy.
Boris Johnson’s large majority means he can push through a Brexit deal that unionists say will weaken Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, stoking anxiety about constitutional status and identity. But the Tory majority also ends the DUP’s leverage at Westminster, giving the party stronger incentive to revive Stormont. Sinn Féin, also chastened, has reason to make a deal.
The British and Irish governments are shepherding all parties back to talks on Monday. Despite looming Brexit challenges, Northern Ireland may be stumbling towards progress.