Surprise in Belfast as cross-community candidate unseats First Minister

By staff writers
7 May 2010

The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland has taken commentators by surprise by unseating the Northern Irish First Minister in his unionist heartland.

The Alliance Party is committed to a cross-community approach to politics, refusing to identify as either nationalist or unionist.

Peter Robinson, who serves as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as well as First Minister, was unseated in Belfast East by the Alliance's Naomi Long with a swing of over 22 per cent. Belfast East has been one of the DUP's most long-held seats. This is the first time that the Alliance has won a seat in Parliament.

The population of the constituency is very largely Protestant. The seat includes areas known for their past support for extreme forms of unionism. Its election of an Alliance MP is therefore likely to be seen as significant progress for cross-community politics.

The issue is complicated, however, by personal criticism of Peter Robinson following his wife's involvement in a scandal involving adultery and alleged misuse of public finances.

Robinson said that he thought Long would serve the people of Belfast East well.

“We do not go back to the bad old days of the past, though there are those who would like to drag us there,” he said, “We will continue to look positively at the future of Northern Ireland and we will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have a bright and better future”.

The Alliance Party has formal links with the Liberal Democrats in Britain, meaning that Long is likely to vote with them in Parliament.

The DUP also failed to take their main target seat, Belfast South, which has been held by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The SDLP is a left-of-centre party taking a moderately nationalist position.

The most extreme of the unionist parties, Traditional Unionist Voice, was soundly defeated by the DUP in the strongly unionist heartland of Antrim North.

And in an unpredictable contest in North Down, the seat was taken by an independent unionist who left the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in protest at the UUP's alliance with the Tory Party.

The Conservative Party may be worried by the Northern Irish results so far, given that in a hung parliament they may wish to make a deal with unionists.

[Ekk/1]

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