2019 has been a difficult year for the UUP. The dominant political party in Northern Ireland for most of the twentieth century, they have spent most of the last twenty years in third place behind the DUP and Sinn Féin, and in the 2017 Assembly election they moved into fourth place behind the SDLP on seats. Following this year’s events, it could increasingly be argued that they are now the smallest of Northern Ireland’s five main parties. They lost the most ground in May’s council election, losing 13 seats from 88 to 75 with a 2.1% decrease in their vote. This was followed by the first ever European election in which the UUP did not return an MEP, their vote dropped by 4% and Danny Kennedy failed to defend Jim Nicholson’s seat, instead it went to Alliance.
The loss of their MEP was undoubtedly a consequence of Brexit and specifically the UUP’s ambiguous position on Brexit, something which their new leader Steve Aiken has tried to address. Under Mike Nesbitt in 2016 the UUP backed remain, but accepted the result and voted to trigger Article 50 in the House of Commons. But with Robin Swann as leader (who voted leave) they strongly opposed the various withdrawal agreements along with the DUP. Aiken took a slightly different stance, similarly opposing Theresa May’s and Boris Johnson’s deals, but insisting that the UUP would back remain rather then these deals, although he did not go as far as to back a second referendum or the revocation of Article 50, leading to an arguably complicated position.
The UUP received 93,123 votes, 11.7% of the overall votes and a 1.4% increase in their 2017 vote. They came in fifth place on both votes and percentage votes, and were the only one of the five main parties not to return any MPs. Until 2005, the UUP was consistently returned as the largest Northern Ireland party in Westminster, in 1959 and 1964 they won every seat in Northern Ireland. 2001 saw them lose several seats to the DUP, but it was in 2005 that they were reduced to just one MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. Hermon left the party before the 2010 election due to their pact with the Conservatives, and they did not win any seats. However, in 2015 Danny Kinahan won South Antrim from the DUP, and Tom Elliott defeated Sinn Féin in Fermanagh and South Tyrone as a result of a pact with the DUP. Both lost in 2017.
The UUP’s best chance by far was Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where Tom Elliott was running again. He won in 2015 by 530 votes, but lost to Sinn Féin by 875 votes. For the third time Elliott had the benefit of being the only unionist on the ballot paper, DUP leader Arlene Foster signed his nomination papers and TUV leader Jim Allister was canvassing for him. Elliott received 21,929 votes, 43.2% of the vote, but a decrease of 2.3% from 2017. The Sinn Féin vote was down by a larger amount (3.9%), but this was not enough for the UUP to take the seat, as the SDLP and Alliance vote was up in the constituency. Ultimately Sinn Féin held this seat by just 57 votes, the narrowest majority in any UK constituency in this election, though there have been even narrower results in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, such as 2001 (53 votes) and 2010 (4 votes).
The UUP’s other key target was South Antrim. South Antrim was an ultra-safe UUP seat until 2000, when William McCrea took the seat for the DUP in a by-election by 822 votes. David Burnside regained the seat for the UUP in 2001 by 1,011 votes, but lost to McCrea in 2005 by 3,448 votes. McCrea held it in 2010 by 1,183 votes against then UUP leader Reg Empey. Danny Kinahan won in 2015 with a majority of 949, but in 2017 Paul Girvan regained the seat with a majority of 3,208. The tradition of South Antrim being a DUP-UUP marginal continued in this election, Danny Kinahan received 12,460 votes, 29.0% which was down 1.8% from 2017. The DUP vote was down more by 3.0%, but the DUP still held on to South Antrim with a majority of 2,689 over Kinahan. It is likely that both the DUP and UUP lost support to Alliance, who had the advantage of a well-known candidate in John Blair whose vote was up 11.6% from 2017.
One positive result for the UUP was North Antrim, where Robin Swann finished in second place with 8,139 votes, 18.5% which was a significant increase of 11.3% on 2017. Interestingly, the DUP vote was down almost equally, by 11.5%, it is also likely that Swann benefitted from the absence of a TUV candidate. It was the UUP’s best result since 2001, and it is probable that Swann will be safe in a future Assembly election, which wasn’t always the case in the past.
The UUP came third in a number of constituencies. Their new leader Steve Aiken ran in East Antrim, a surprise to many considering he is an MLA for South Antrim, and it has been a safe DUP seat since 2005. Aiken received 5,475 votes, 14.7% and an increase of 2.8%. However, he was 4,690 votes behind Alliance and 11,306 votes behind the DUP. This makes it very difficult for them to defend their two Assembly seats, the only success for the UUP in the last Assembly election is when John Stewart won a seat in East Antrim alongside Roy Beggs, both the DUP and Sinn Féin lost seats there. In Strangford Philip Smith received 4,023 votes, 10.7% and 0.7% down from 2017. A disappointing result for the UUP here, they held the seat until 2001, and it looks as though they have lost ground to Alliance, who were 6,611 votes ahead, the DUP were 13,682 votes ahead. Lagan Valley has always been a strong UUP area, and Robbie Butler did well with 8,606 votes, 19.0% of the vote and an increase of 2.2%. However, there was a massive increase in the Alliance vote which brought them 4,481 votes ahead of the UUP, while the DUP were 10,980 votes ahead.
There were some unexpected results for the UUP. For example, in Upper Bann, held by David Trimble until 2005, Doug Beattie finished in fourth place with 6,197 votes, with 12.4% his vote was down 3.0% on 2017, the big surprise here was Alliance ahead of the UUP in Upper Bann by 236 votes. In North Down, held by the UUP until shortly before the 2010 election, Alan Chambers finished in third place with 4,936 votes, 12.1%, which is a solid vote considering that they didn’t run here in 2015 and 2017, although they were probably hoping to gain some of Lady Hermon’s 16,148 votes in 2017, most appeared to have gone to Alliance who won the seat. In East Londonderry, a UUP seat until 2001, the UUP finished in fifth place with 3,599 votes, 9.2% and an increase of 1.6%. As with Upper Bann, it was a surprise to many that Alliance was 2,322 votes ahead in East Londonderry for the first time. In East Belfast the UUP received 2,516 votes, 5.9% of the vote and 2.6% more then 2017. It is likely that the UUP gained some support from the DUP, whose vote was down by 6.6%, they didn’t impact on Alliance whose vote was up by 8.2%.
In a number of majority-nationalist constituencies, the UUP finished in fifth place behind Alliance for the first time. In Newry and Armagh they received 4,204 votes, 8.3% and the same percentage as 2017, Alliance was just 7 votes ahead. In South Down they received 3,307 votes, 6.6% and 2.7% more then 2017, but Alliance had over twice as many votes with 6,916. The UUP received 2,774 votes in West Tyrone, 6.7% and a 1.6% increase on 2017, but Alliance was 1,205 votes ahead. And in Mid Ulster they received 2,611 votes, 5.9% and a decrease of 0.6%, Alliance was ahead by 915 votes.
Finally, the UUP had some disappointing results in the constituencies won by the SDLP. In South Belfast they received 1,259 votes, 2.7% and a decrease of 0.8%. South Belfast was a safe UUP seat until 2005, the scale of their decline at Westminster level, as well as Stormont and local councils, is significant. In Foyle, one of only two constituencies in which the UUP has not won an Assembly seat since 1998 (the other is West Belfast which they didn’t contest this time), the UUP finished seventh with 1,088 votes, 2.3% which is an increase as the UUP didn’t run here in 2017.
With an Assembly election very possible next year, the UUP will face some challenges in such an election. The 11.7% received by the UUP is less then the 12.9% that they had in the less Assembly election. Of their 10 seats, by far the most vulnerable is their second seat in East Antrim. They have less then one quota in this election, making it very unlikely they will defend their two seats unless they balance their vote extremely well and benefit from transfers from the other parties. East Belfast could be precarious if they only receive 5.9%, but it is likely that they will do better in Assembly elections here as they normally do. Fermanagh and South Tyrone could also be one to watch, but it is difficult to see the UUP losing out here as they are more transfer-friendly then the DUP, who are unlikely to win two seats. The remaining seven seats are all quite safe, as mentioned Robin Swann’s increase in North Antrim should help him retain his seat. However, on these results it is unlikely that the UUP will gain seats they have lost in the last few elections, such as South Belfast, South Down, Newry and Armagh, Mid Ulster, East Londonderry and West Tyrone, as well as second seats in South Antrim, North Down, Strangford, Lagan Valley and Upper Bann. An important aspect of an Assembly election will be whether Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott decide to return to Stormont, both left the Assembly in 2015 when they became MPs, but haven’t had an opportunity to run again since losing their Westminster seats.
Finally, it is also worth looking at what could happen to the UUP in local councils. They had 14.1% of the vote, more then 11.7% in this election, therefore they could lose some seats if this result is repeated. The decline of their vote in the south and west of Northern Ireland could make it more difficult to defend a number of seats, such as Derg, Omagh, Moyola and Slieve Croob. And there are a number of second seats that look vulnerable because of these results, including four seats in Lisburn: Lisburn North, Lisburn South, Downshire East and Downshire West, as well as their second seats in Antrim, Ballyclare and Carrick Castle.
The UUP will undoubtedly be disappointed with this election. Despite a 1.4% increase in their vote and a solid overall vote of 93,123 votes, they did not win any MPs, making this the third House of Commons in modern times without a UUP voice. They will be hoping to gain additional ground before an Assembly election, and although most of their seats are reasonably safe, the risk for them is that they drop into fifth place at Stormont and local councils in the future.