General election 2019 – DUP loses its Westminster influence

The previous parliamentary term has seen the DUP with an unprecedented influence in the House of Commons and therefore in politics across the UK. This was because the Conservatives were several seats short of a majority following the 2017 election, so Theresa May turned to the DUP for help, resulting in a confidence and supply agreement between them. However, the DUP’s influence did not prevent the negotiation of a Withdrawal Agreement by May that they strongly opposed, and subsequently Boris Johnson’s amendments were also opposed by the DUP, which arguably resulted in this election.

In 2017 the DUP had their greatest ever result, winning ten seats on 36.0% of the vote, they were just 1,208 votes away from gaining an eleventh seat in North Down. That election came just after a very disappointing Assembly election for the DUP in which they lost ten seats, from 38 MLAs to 28, while Sinn Féin was one seat behind on 27. Because of this, the general election provided an opportunity for the DUP to regain ground and because of the unique arithmetic in the House of Commons, the DUP had a stronger influence then ever before.

In this election the DUP received 244,127 votes, 30.6% of the percentage vote. They remain the largest party in Northern Ireland and decisively the largest unionist party. However, this is a 5.4% decrease from 2017, the DUP has lost nearly a sixth of their 2017 vote. They held eight seats, losing two seats in North Belfast and South Belfast.

The DUP constituency with the largest DUP majority remains North Antrim, where Ian Paisley Jr was re-elected with 20,860 votes (47.4%), this is an 11.5% decrease from 2017. His majority is 12,721, which is significantly less then last time, it is likely that the DUP has lost support to the UUP who were up 11.3% and Alliance who were up 8.5%. In neighbouring East Londonderry, Gregory Campbell regained this seat with 15,765 votes (40.1%), down 8.0% from 2017. Interestingly, Campbell’s majority of 9,607 is the largest majority in this constituency since 1992 (the DUP has held this seat since 2001). The reason for this is that Sinn Féin’s vote was down 10.9%, they came second last time but they were narrowly out-polled by the SDLP who finished second. In Upper Bann Carla Lockhart was elected as the new DUP MP, succeeding David Simpson who held this seat since 2005. Lockhart received 20,501 votes (41.0%), her majority of 8,210 was the largest majority here since 1997 when David Trimble was the MP. Like East Londonderry, this is because the Sinn Féin vote was also down by a slightly larger amount, 3.4%, and the UUP were down 3.0%, they were hoping to regain this seat but they finished in fourth behind Alliance. Although David Simpson’s vote in 2017 was slightly larger then this time, hence the 2.5% decrease for the DUP in Upper Bann.

There were three other seats in which the DUP held their seats as expected but with a much smaller majority. Jim Shannon was elected in Strangford with 17,705 votes, 47.2%. However, the DUP vote in Strangford was down 14.8%, and Shannon’s majority is 7,071 votes, down from 18,343 in 2017. The reason for this is a significant increase in the Alliance vote, Kellie Armstrong had 10,634 votes, a 13.7% increase to 28.4%. In Lagan Valley Sir Jeffrey Donaldson retained this seat, remaining the longest serving of Northern Ireland’s current MPs, with 19,586 votes, 43.1%. A significant decrease of 16.5%, and Donaldson’s majority is 6,499, much less then 19,229 in 2017. Alliance candidate Sorcha Eastwood substantially increased the Alliance vote to 13,087 votes, a 17.7% increase to 28.8%. And in East Antrim Sammy Wilson was elected with 16,871 votes, 45.3%, which was a 12.0% decrease from 2017. The DUP majority in East Antrim is 6,616 which is much less then 15,923 in 2017, while Danny Donnelly gained 10,165 votes for Alliance, a 11.7% increase to 27.3%. With the UUP polling in third place in these constituencies, it appears that the DUP has lost a lot of support to Alliance in East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford, making these seats potentially marginal in the future rather then ultra-safe DUP seats.

There were two other DUP seats won by a quite narrow margin. Paul Girvan was elected in South Antrim, having first won this seat in 2017, William McCrea held this seat from 2000 to 2001 and from 2010 to 2015. Girvan received 15,149 votes, 35.3% which was 3.0% down from 2017. His majority was 2,689 votes ahead of former UUP MP Danny Kinahan, whose vote was down 1.8%, in third place was Alliance MLA John Blair whose vote was up 11.6%. This was a narrower victory for Girvan then 2017 when he had a majority of 3,208, making South Antrim an intriguing constituency for future elections. The other constituency to elect a DUP seat was East Belfast, Gavin Robinson received 20,874 votes, 49.2% and a 6.6% decrease from 2017. Robinson’s majority is 1,819, with Alliance leader Naomi Long very close behind on 19,055 votes and 44.9%, up 8.2% from 2017. It was a much larger DUP victory in 2017, a majority of 8,474, but this result confirms that East Belfast is a very marginal seat between the DUP and Alliance.

The DUP lost two seats. Their deputy leader Nigel Dodds lost in North Belfast to John Finucane from Sinn Féin. Dodds received 21,135 votes, 43.1% and 3.1% down from 2017, but Finucane won by a majority of 1,943 votes and a 5.4% increase in his vote, Nuala McAllister also increased the Alliance vote by 4.4%. Dodds had benefitted from the absence of other unionist candidates, as in 2015 and 2017, but this time the SDLP and Green Party had stood aside which undoubtedly helped Finucane to win. The DUP had previously held North Belfast from 1979 to 1983 and 2001 to 2019, however until now this seat had always been held by unionists. The other DUP seat lost was South Belfast, Emma Little Pengelly won this seat for the DUP (their first time ever) in 2017, but this time it was a decisive victory for Claire Hanna from the SDLP. Little Pengelly received 11,678 votes, 24.7% which was a 5.7% decrease from 2017. Hanna’s majority was a huge 15,401 votes over the DUP, making it very difficult to see the DUP regaining this seat for a long time.

The key target seat for the DUP was North Down, it was expected that Lady Sylvia Hermon would hold this seat for as long as she wanted, but in 2017 Alex Easton was just 1,208 votes behind. Therefore, with Lady Hermon retiring some expected Easton to easily gain this seat. This was not the case, Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry won this seat with 18,358 votes, 45.2% and a huge increase of 35.9% from 2017. Easton received 15,390 votes, 37.9% which was very slightly down by 0.1% from 2017. It appears that most of Lady Hermon’s 16,148 voters in 2017 backed Alliance this time, especially considering that the UUP were in distant third with 12.1%. This was therefore a very disappointing election for the DUP, as in 2005 and 2017 North Down was their one key target that they have failed to gain, and a historic victory for Alliance, winning the North Down Westminster seat for the first time.

Looking at the remaining DUP seats, their vote was down but not by as a significant amount as other constituencies. In Newry and Armagh William Irwin came second with 11,000 votes, 21.7% and a 2.9% decrease from 2017. In Mid Ulster Keith Buchanan also came second with 10,936 votes, 24.5% and down 2.4% from 2017. West Tyrone also saw the DUP finish in second place with 9,066 votes, 22.0% and a 4.9% decrease from 2017. The DUP came in third place in South Down, Glyn Hanna received 7,619 votes, 15.3% and down 2.1%, they have lost some support to the UUP whose vote was up 2.7% but the Alliance vote was up 10.3%, Patrick Brown was 703 votes behind Hanna. In Foyle Gary Middleton also came in third place with 4,773 votes, 10.1% and a 6.0% decrease from 2017, it appears that some of the DUP support has gone to the SDLP, as well as some to the UUP who didn’t contest Foyle in 2017. Finally, in West Belfast Frank McCoubrey received 5,220 votes, 13.5% and up 0.1%, therefore making this the only constituency in which the DUP vote was up, which is interesting as this is the only constituency which doesn’t have a DUP MLA.

In a snap Assembly election, the DUP will be hoping to gain some of the ten seats lost in 2017 with the reduction of Assembly seats from 108 to 90. They received 28.1% of the vote in the 2017 Assembly election, less then 30.6% in this election. Therefore, they are unlikely to lose a significant number of seats. The key constituency to watch is Strangford, the only one which has three DUP MLAs, it looks likely that third DUP seat could be lost unless there is a large increase in their vote. Foyle looks vulnerable as well, there was always a safe unionist seat in a six-seat constituency but with five seats it will be much more difficult to hold. South Down could also be interesting, depending on whether or not Jim Wells is the candidate. On the other hand, West Belfast could be a possibility if the DUP is on 15% or close to it as that would be nearly a quota. And finally North Down will be intriguing, the DUP have two MLAs there but following Alliance’s victory in this election this could be closer then expected.

Looking also at a future local election, there are some areas in which the DUP would be hoping to gain seats on a vote like this, and also some areas where the DUP could be worried about losing seats. They narrowly missed out on a second seat in Oldpark and Castlereagh South because of poor balancing in May, but it will be a challenge for them to regain these seats. Also worth watching are DEAs west of the Bann where the DEA will target gains from the UUP, such as Cusher, Armagh, Cookstown, Torrent, Derg, Mid Tyrone and Erne West, these are all possible but my no means guaranteed. Slieve Croob could be one to watch, the UUP surprisingly gained this seat from the DUP in May.

This was unquestionably a disappointing result for the DUP. Losing South Belfast was expected by most, but the party was probably hoping to gain North Down and hold their other seats to finish with ten as they had started. Instead Alliance won in North Down, and the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds lost his seat in North Belfast. East Belfast and South Antrim were held but only narrowly, while East Antrim, Strangford and Lagan Valley are no longer the ultra-safe DUP seats they were in 2017, the Alliance surge makes them much more competitive. North Antrim, East Londonderry and Upper Bann were the only decisive DUP victories. Having said that, their result in this election was higher then the Assembly election, so they probably aren’t set for a significant loss of MLAs, but local and Assembly elections will nonetheless be a challenge because of the wider range of parties running in each constituency.

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