The far-reaching impact of last week’s Northern Ireland general election results

The far-reaching impact of last week’s Northern Ireland general election results

The Irish Post's veteran commentator PETER KELLY joined the press pack at Belfast's Titanic Exhibition Centre as results emerged for the North's 18 MPs

If the British general election was a foregone conclusion, Northern Ireland's results were anything but.

Having covered innumerable contests in the North, Britain, the United States and Australia for over two decades, I joined the mass media expectation that this snap poll would be roughly the 'business as usual' of predicted results on the night across the 18 constituencies, bar perhaps one or two colourful changes. The DUP went into the Westminster contest with 8 MPs to Sinn Féin's 7, the remaining 3 divided between SDLP 2 and Alliance 1.

But in the end, even the most seasoned commentators were taken aback by the emerging changes. Among the steady-handed scribes at the media tables in the Titanic Exhibition Centre, the night began with resigned boredom and ended with expletive astonishment.

Within Northern Ireland the age-old sectarian imperative reigns supreme, and the zero-sum contest of green versus orange continues unabated, post-Good Friday. This is especially true at election time, with conclusions being drawn when headcount tallies are scrutinised and ballot boxes emptied. Big name personalities come into play in their respective fiefdoms, and whether they are strengthened or undermined.

Despite the now lesser status of Westminster as a powerhouse - due to definitive policy and prestige resting at Stormont – last week’s contest provided unexpected headlines and impact that few could have foreseen. It has stunned the political arena and could have far reaching impacts.

The combined scalping of the DUP and the onward march of the Sinn Féin vote was the story of the night. The loss of the former DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson's stronghold of Lagan Valley to a young, vibrant and progressive voice in Alliance's Sorcha Eastwood was the emerging big story of the night.

Not to be outdone, the breath-taking capture and humiliation of the House of Paisley's homeland seat of North Antrim by the party's arch-critic Jim Allister provided even higher drama. The unexpected unseating of Ian Paisley Junior was exemplified by his body language at the count centre — it was obvious the incoming electoral missile brought seismic defeat.

The near loss of other headline figures and seats will be, of course, explained away by unionism as a result of vote splitting by several pro-union parties. But the sheer prospect of 'all change' in traditional orange heartlands may indicate the inexorable march towards a united Ireland border poll under the new Labour government. And you can bet a renewed push for this by an electorally energised Sinn Féin at Westminster will be their chief priority.

Cold water however, can be poured onto the post-match triumphalism by the sobering urgency that critical funding from Keir Starmer's Labour Party must be found for Stormont's departments to bridge the devastating chasms caused by 14 years of Tory austerity and to function. That will be the real test of the 'New New Labour' era, above all constitutional concerns.

The percentage turnout was the worst in the North's history which suggests widespread disillusionment and the imperative for Labour to deliver on the 'hope and change' generated by Starmer's optimism and restorative agenda.

The 'hat-trick' now secured by Irish Republicans - in becoming the dominant force across all three of Northern Ireland's institutions of government - council, Stormont and now Westminster will have been particularly noted in Leinster House and Government Buildings in Dublin. The recovery by Mary Lou McDonald's party after June's disappointing MEP and local government elections in the Republic will remind the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael governing coalition that the spectre of Sinn Féin as a potential Irish government party, to borrow a phrase - hasn't gone away you know.

Peter Kelly