Ian Paisley’s DUP wins big in Northern Ireland election – ISN

DERRY — As expected, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) emerged as the big winner in the Northern Ireland part of the UK general election held on 5 May.

Friday’s results saw the party led by preacher Ian Paisley gain three seats. The DUP increased its vote share by 11 per cent over the 2001 election results to become the largest Northern Irish party at Westminister, taking half of the 18 seats representing the province.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), historically the main representative of pro-British sentiment in Northern Ireland, lost four of its five seats, including the constituency of party leader and 1998 Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble.

In response to the crushing defeat, Trimble resigned as party leader on Saturday afternoon. As recently as 1997, Trimble’s party had been the strongest in Northern Ireland, taking 10 seats at that general election.

Meanwhile, the nationalist Social, Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) remained on 3 seats, despite pre-election predictions that the party would go the same way as the UUP.

SDLP leader Mark Durkan held the symbolic and fiercely contested Foyle seat, taking the city of Derry/Londonderry. Sinn Féin had predicted that its chairman, Mitchel McLaughlin, would take the seat, which was previously held by Trimble’s fellow 1998 Nobel Laureate John Hume.

Durkan took the seat by almost 6,000 votes, an 11 per cent margin, and was helped by tactical unionist voting aimed at keeping the seat away from Sinn Féin, according to DUP candidate William Hay.

An SDLP councilor and campaigner for Durkan present at the announcement told ISN Security Watch that he was “not one bit surprised” at the results.

“We worked hard to get our stay-at-home vote out, and the margin of victory shows that the SDLP is alive in Derry and here to stay,” he said.

In a major surprise, the SDLP took the South Belfast seat, as intra-Unionist UUP-DUP rivalry caused a split vote, paving the way for the victory of SDLP candidate Alastair McDonnell.

Although Sinn Féin was not able,  as many had predicted, to obliterate the SDLP as a voice for constitutional pro-Irish nationalism, the party increased its representation at Westminster by one seat, and its overall vote share by 3 per cent.

Elsewhere the election results were generally in line with predictions. All seats went to the four main parties, with huge personal majorities for Paisley in North Antrim and for Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, who took 70 per cent of the vote in West Belfast.

With the so-called extremists strengthened at the expense of so-called moderates – particularly in the Unionist camp – it is not expected that Northern Ireland’s stop-and-go peace process can be revived soon.

The DUP has made informal offers to the SDLP to form a coalition and revive the dormant executive, which was devolved to Belfast in a key provision of the 1998 peace agreement. The SDLP will not do so without Sinn Féin, as such a move would leave it vulnerable to intra-nationalist accusations of anti-democratic practice.

Reactions from the Irish and British governments have been cautiously optimistic. Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern said: “It is now time for parties that moved to the extremes for electoral purposes to move back toward the center”.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s new cabinet features Welsh Secretary Peter Hain in a double role as the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

With doubts over the long-term viability of Blair’s premiership, analysts believe that the appointment of the outspoken South African-born “Hain the Pain” signals the British prime minister’s intent to prioritize Northern Ireland and advance the peace process, and, it seems, his historical legacy.

However, the immediate future will depend on a response by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to the election results, and to Adams’ recent call for the IRA to engage in purely democratic means.

An Independent Monitoring Commission report due in the next few days is expected to state that the IRA is still recruiting and training new members, rather than moving towards disarmament and disbandment.

Northern Ireland’s three decades of civil conflict up to 1998 saw over 3,600 people killed, most of them civilians, as mostly Catholic Irish nationalists and republican paramilitaries, who want Northern Ireland to merge with the Republic of Ireland to the south, faced off against mostly Protestant unionists or loyalist counterparts who want to remain part of the United Kingdom. British soldiers flooded into Northern Ireland but were viewed by many nationalists as a hostile occupation force and were regularly targeted by the IRA.

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