On election night, the eyes of the DUP were glued to the exit poll. The result of this in 2017 brought a tremendous spotlight upon the party. Their votes were hugely influential in the last Parliament, preventing both Theresa May and Boris Johnson getting their respective deals through the Commons.
Yet, as 10pm arrived, there was no such luck. And their bad luck seemed to continue throughout the night. So what happened?
The major loss of the night was Nigel Dodds in Belfast North. It was the main battleground seat throughout the media – the racer between orange and green. Unionism had a poor start here with the vying between the DUP and the UUP on who should or should not stand here. In the end, it became a two-horse race between the DUP and Sinn Féin, with the UUP and SDLP not standing. Some rudimentary maths based on the 2017 election stated that the two nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP polled only 23 votes behind the DUP when their votes were combined. In 2019, the result was a lot more convincing with Sinn Féin gaining an almost a 2,000 vote majority.
At first glance, the DUP held firm, only losing 105 votes. However, an increase of over 5.7% in registered voters in the constituency meant this was not enough votes to match Sinn Féin whose vote share increased by 5.4%. The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, called the result of “pan-nationalist” front through the SDLP standing aside in favour of Sinn Féin. A slightly strange term given the “pan-unionist” front employed here removing the UUP from the race.
It was also a poor night for the DUP in Belfast South. The SDLP ousted the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly. Whilst this may appear as a further green-orange race, there was a clear secondary issue here. Brexit. In this overwhelming Remain constituency, the DUP’s Leave policy did not prove popular with the electorate. This handed Claire Hanna a decisive majority of over 15,000. Her Brexit position, her popularity as a local MLA and support from Sinn Féin and the Green party helped her achieve the biggest majority of any seat in Northern Ireland.
Whilst these were the only seat losses of the night for the DUP, it was a poor night overall for the party. Not one seat showed a vote increase. Most significantly, this played out in North Down. While they only lost 0.3% of their vote, Alliance polled almost 3,000 votes above the DUP’s Alex Easton. With independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon not standing, this was a race to see who could muster up her votes. The DUP and UUP both failed in this, instead giving Alliance’s Stephen Farry the seat.
Over in Belfast East, the DUP continued their poor form losing 6.6% of their vote. However, unlike North Down, they fought off an effective challenge from Alliance with Gavin Robinson holding the seat held by Naomi Long from 2010 – 2015. Ever since the flag protests, some unionist voters who lent their support to Naomi Long felt betrayed by Alliance who joined up with nationalist parties to back the ‘designated days’ policy. Since winning back the seat in 2015, Gavin Robinson has managed to retain a wide enough body of support to be elected, despite growing Alliance support across the province. In fact, the DUP did well to retain this seat when Alliance increased their vote in Belfast East by 8.2%.
There were no other remarkable battleground seats involving the DUP, however there were some other interesting results to pore over. The DUP’s biggest losses of the night were not in any of the battleground seats. They were in their supposedly safe seats of Lagan Valley, Strangford and East Antrim. In these seats, the DUP lost 14.52% of their vote. Correlate this with the Alliance Party, who, in these seats, increased their vote, by 14.56%. Whilst there is no guarantee these voters made a direct switch to Alliance, other parties only made small gains in these seats. If the Alliance surge continues in these areas, the DUP will be lucky to retain these seats. This is most worrying for the new DUP Westminster leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, who has lost over half of his majority, now only holding an advantage of 6,499.
Take a look at this number-crunching of votes for the DUP and Alliance in Lagan Valley, Strangford and East Antrim
% DUP Votes in 2019 = 45.08%
% DUP Votes in 2017 = 59.6%
Difference = -14.52%
% Alliance Votes in 2019 = 28.2%
% Alliance Votes in 2017 = 13.65%
Difference = +14.56%
Lastly, a look at North Antrim – a DUP heartland and the seat of Ian Paisley Jr, recently disgraced following his visits to Sri Lanka and later recall petition, which was unsuccessful in ousting Paisley. Most likely in response to this, the DUP lost 11.5% of their vote with the UUP and Alliance both making gains. In fact, this was only one of two seats where the UUP increased their vote (the other being North Down).
At face value, the results in terms of seats were overwhelmingly poor for the DUP. Losing Belfast North and South and not gaining North Down. Now, there are more nationalist MPs elected to Westminster than there are unionist MPs.
Delve deeper and look at vote shares and individual constituencies, it is an abysmal night for the DUP. Not one increase in vote share, losing up to 16.4% of their vote in some seats. The election showed a weakened DUP, being poked and prodded by all other parties. With the TUV out of this election, there was no party trying to out-do the DUP in its unionism. Instead, the DUP seems to be losing its soft unionist base.
A first past the post election can cloud some over some of their defeats, but the DUP may not be so lucky in a proportional assembly election, whenever that may be.
Peter Moor is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.