What next for DUP after Ian Paisley ousted and Gregory Campbell and Sammy Wilson clung on?

One of the DUP’s big beasts has left the stage and two others held on by their very fingernails - this might not have been the DUP's 2005 moment, but it felt like a seismic night for the party and for unionism.

Ian Paisley’s shock ousting as North Antrim MP at the hands of Jim Allister was the most unexpected result on a night full of dramatic moments across Northern Ireland’s three count centres. The DUP also lost South Antrim and Lagan Valley, but Sammy Wilson and Gregory Campbell also only limped over the line in East Antrim and East Londonderry respectively.

It felt similar to 2005 when the Ulster Unionists, who had long dominated the unionist corridors of power at Westminster, were systematically routed by the DUP. The late David Trimble was a casualty then as the UUP was reduced to just one Westminster seat.

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This time Mr Campbell and Mr Wilson survived - Mr Campbell by the desperately tight margin of 179 votes - but this felt like the beginning of the end for the two unionist veterans. It feels highly unlikely that they will go before the electorate again in four or five years’ time, given their respective ages and also because they would be defending wafer-thin majorities.

Lagan Valley is another huge stand-out result because what was once unionism’s most secure seat was won by Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood as the unionist vote cancelled itself out.

Ian Paisley at Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt
Ian Paisley at Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt -Credit:Niall Carson/PA Wire

Fresh from his own flirtation with political demise, Mr Wilson pressed the starter button on that debate within a fractured unionism by launching a scathing attack on other parties in the loss of crucial seats.

Where is Mr Wilson referring to? Lagan Valley is the obvious example of how unionist unity, the likes of which helped the independent unionist Alex Easton depose Stephen Farry of Alliance in North Down, could have saved a seat.

The DUP will ask why the TUV ran a candidate in a constituency it was never likely to win, while the Ulster Unionist Robbie Butler also realistically never stood a chance in a race that was always between Ms Eastwood and Jonathan Buckley.

Lagan Valley perhaps saw a unique set of circumstances, with sitting MP Jeffrey Donaldson not running as he faces historic sexual offence charges. The DUP had to hastily come up with an alternative candidate and Mr Buckley, already an MLA in neighbouring Upper Bann, was parachuted into the constituency and this probably didn’t help the party’s cause. With Mr Butler increasing his vote from 2019 and the TUV winning over 2,000 votes, Ms Eastwood came up through the middle.

Lagan Valley Alliance candidate, Sorcha Eastwood, wins the seat with a vote of 18,6187
Lagan Valley Alliance candidate, Sorcha Eastwood, wins the seat with a vote of 18,6187 -Credit:Philip Magowan / Press Eye

Had Gavin Robinson, the party leader, succumbed in East Belfast, it would have represented a full blown crisis for the DUP. As it was, Mr Robinson defied doomsday predictions and actually increased his majority over Naomi Long. The party also comfortably held Strangford and Upper Bann.

What of the UUP? Robin Swann’s stunning win in South Antrim was the obvious highlight for leader Doug Beattie, showing the value of a candidate with high political standing, but the Ulster Unionists didn’t really land a punch anywhere else. Fermanagh South Tyrone, which many felt the party could win from Sinn Fein, saw Diana Armstrong finish well behind Pat Cullen.

The need for unionist unity in future elections will dominate conversations in the days, weeks and months ahead but there is no simple answer to unionism’s woes. Both main parties are short of younger, dynamic politicians with a message that can cut through and appeal to a broader electorate.

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