Unionists win extra seats but won't be king-makers
Unionism is returning to Westminster with more seats, but less influence than they had hoped for.
Instead of the hung parliament predicted by all pollsters after the General Election, David Cameron will form a Conservative government with a working seven-seat majority.
But First Minister Peter Robinson last night said that the slim margin of the majority still means that his party could have increased influence on the national stage.
He said: "I think anyone who knows anything about how parliament works will know that the narrow majority that the Prime Minister has, with the stress and strain of a five-year term, it is fairly clear there will be votes during the course of that period of time where support of other parties will be necessary and we would look to have a good relationship and work with him if it helps to realise the Northern Ireland plan."
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said the election gave the best result for unionists in more than a decade.
"We have taken a seat off Sinn Féin. That is a signal which is going to go across the whole of Northern Ireland. Unionism is no longer on the back foot," Mr Nesbitt stated.
There are now 11 unionist MPs.
This increase in pro-union representation is down to the fact that the UUP has returned to Westminster with two seats. One of them was gained by Tom Elliott at the expense of Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. The other was taken from the DUP's Rev Willie McCrea by Danny Kinahan in Mid Ulster. The victory will strengthen the leadership of Mike Nesbitt who had felt they could get up to three seats on a good day and is elated.
The UUP was the biggest party in Northern Ireland for most of our history and this halts a long decline. They have had no MPs since 2006.
The DUP, which is still the biggest party, returned with eight seats - same as last time. They have compensated for the loss of South Antrim by winning East Belfast back from Naomi Long of Alliance. In what was billed as the closest fight of the contest, Gavin Robinson recaptured the seat his party lost to the Alliance Party's Naomi Long in 2010.
Party leader Peter Robinson told this paper: "I'm delighted that Gavin was successful. Obviously it is a seat that has a particular importance to me so it was great that we recaptured it.
"I think given some of the issues that came up during the campaign that we came back with an increased vote and that we came back with the same number of MPs is a considerable feat.
"There are two seats where another 900 odd votes in each of them would have made all the difference and we could have been going back with 10 seats."
The Alliance Party increased its vote overall but still ended up losing its only seat in East Belfast. However, Naomi Long's vote was over 42pc making it likely that Alliance can take another Stormont seat next year. If they do it will probably be at the UUP's expense. That party didn't run in East Belfast because of the unionist pact and the DUP estimates that they got about two thirds of former UUP voters.
The combined nationalist vote was down marginally and Sinn Féin failed to mobilise voters against the unionist pact as they had hoped. In fact they lost a key seat and are now down to four MPs in West Belfast, Mid Ulster, Fermanagh and South Tyrone and West Tyrone. It is party policy not to take these seats.
Despite the loss of a seat Gerry Adams, the party president, argued that Sinn Féin had done well to consolidated recent electoral gains. "Across constituencies Sinn Féin consolidated and built support," he said. "In many constituencies we faced a unionist pact held together by opposition to change, opposition to equality and in support of a union that is imposing austerity.
"This was most evident in Fermanagh/South Tyrone where all shades of unionism combined with the Tory party to unseat a republican woman."
Martin McGuinness said local parties now need to develop a common approach to address the challenges presented by the new Tory government.
He added: "It is now clear that the Tory party will form a majority government. This presents a huge challenge to all our parties and society.
"The actions of the Tory party over the last five years have had a negative impact on the management of the political process and have been disastrous in terms of our budget, our economy and our people.
"The Tories are now threatening further savage cuts."