ELECTION 2022: Round-up on where unionism stands

With Sinn Fein poised to emerge this weekend as the single biggest force in the next Assembly, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson called last night for a meeting of all unionist leaders to discuss the electoral fallout.

By Henry McDonald
Saturday, 7th May 2022, 11:09 am
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 6/5/2022: An unhappy looking DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson with former First Minister, Paul Givan and MP, Ian Paisley at the election count for the North, South and East Antrim constituencies plus Lagan Valley and North Down in Jordanstown.
PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON
PACEMAKER, BELFAST, 6/5/2022: An unhappy looking DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson with former First Minister, Paul Givan and MP, Ian Paisley at the election count for the North, South and East Antrim constituencies plus Lagan Valley and North Down in Jordanstown. PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

The DUP leader also made clear that his party will not be entering any new Executive next week while the Northern Ireland Protocol remains in place.

Sir Jeffrey told the News Letter he will use the debate in the House of Commons this Tuesday to inform Boris Johnson that there will be no DUP return to power-sharing until the government “decisively deals” with the post-Brexit trade deal all unionists say is decoupling Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

In what has been a bruising election for unionism in general the DUP estimates it will return with between 25 to 26 seats but will still finish second to Sinn Fein. Jim Allister’s TUV soared to 8% of the vote, but despite this might not have won a second seat.

Signalling that Stormont is heading for stalemate, Sir Jeffrey said: “I will be tell the prime minister that it is almost exactly 12 months from when his government released a command paper on the protocol which outlined many of the problems caused for the political institutions and the economy here in Northern Ireland.

“I will make it clear in the debate in the Commons that the protocol must be altered. That is fundamental to preserving Northern Ireland’s place within the Union and until it is replaced our position on the Executive remains the same.”

He issued a challenge to the leaders of other unionist parties to hold talks soon on future electoral co-operation and strategies which he described as “one of my top priorities” over the coming few weeks.

Sir Jeffrey warned that “a divided unionism does not deliver more seats” and that this “only gives victory to our opponents”.

As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson reached out to other unionist leaders last night calling for an emergency meeting following Sinn Fein’s electoral victory one of them was busy fighting for his political survival.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie left the count in Magherafelt knowing he is in a real battle to retain his Upper Bann seat today.

By stage five of counting in Upper Bann Mr Beattie was on 5,199 votes and at risk of losing his seat to the Alliance candidate Eoin Tennyson on 6,400.

As the UUP leader prepared for an anxious few hours today which would determine his future, his DUP counterpart urged all leading figures in unionism to meet and discuss how to respond to Sinn Fein topping the poll.

Sir Jeffrey said: “A divided unionism does not deliver more seats. We have to start discussions as soon as possibly to avoid in future elections the splintering of the unionist vote which only gives victory to our opponents.”

On Sinn Fein’s win, the DUP leader said: “As I predicted throughout the campaign Sinn Fein wouldn’t take long to start demanding a border poll as Mary Lou McDonald did on RTE television tonight. Unionism needs to realise what our opponents are really about and collectively start working together to ensure Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.”

The DUP leader cited the case of West Belfast where the DUP candidate Frank McCoubrey had 4,166 first preference votes but was faced with two rival candidates in a constituency dominated by Sinn Fein.

“There is still a slender chance that Frank McCoubrey might make it against Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit but even if he doesn’t this constituency is an example of the folly of unionist parties competing against each other for a single unionist seat available.

“The same goes for Foyle. We need discussions to work out practical ways to avoid splitting the vote and giving it away to the opposition,” he said.

Earlier yesterday Sir Jeffrey took his seat in Lagan Valley on the first count with 12,626 votes where Alliance increased its share of the vote by 50%.

TUV leader Jim Allister was still waiting last night to see if his candidate in Strangford Stephen Cooper could win the last seat. But Mr Allister pointed out that 65,000 unionists from across the Province had given him their first preference votes.

He said: “I am very disappointed across the country that we have tripled our vote but that is not reflected in the number of seats.

“We had 7.6% of the vote, a massive increase, but that is not reflected in the number of seats. It is very disappointing when you collect 4-5,000 votes or more in many other constituencies that it doesn’t translate into seats because of the vagaries of the system.”

Among the casualties of the election on the unionist side was Roy Beggs in East Antrim and former DUP education minister Peter Weir who lost out in Strangford.

Others to lose their seats included the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly in Upper Bann with her party colleague, former infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon’s North Belfast seat also in doubt.

Last night there were 46 seats filled out of 90 with Sinn Fein on 18, the DUP on 12, the Alliance at seven, the UUP on four, the SDLP on three and two others.

There was some good news for the Ulster Unionists in North Antrim where former health minister Robin Swann topped the poll with 9,530 votes. Mr Swann said his role in leading the local health service’s fight against the Covid-19 pandemic was “recognised on the doorsteps.”

He pointed out that the last time an Ulster Unionist came top in North Antrim was way back in 1966.