Stormont's First Minister Peter Robinson unseated after year of scandal

Ireland Correspondent,David McKittrick
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:25

A huge upset in Northern Ireland saw the unexpected defeat of Peter Robinson, who is both First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist party.

He lost the East Belfast seat he has held for more than 30 years to Naomi Long of the Alliance party, a grouping which has never won a Westminster seat but which is aligned to the Liberal Democrats.

The assumption is that Mr Robinson was fatally damaged by the accusations of sleaze which have surrounded his party and in particular himself in recent months. His perceived closeness to property developers evidently cost him many votes, as his 6,000 majority evaporated.

Other DUP candidates by contrast did not experience such punishment at the hands of the voters, suggesting their leader had suffered for personal rather than political reasons.

For example, the DUP comfortably held the Strangford seat vacated by Mr Robinson's wife Iris, who withdrew from public life following sexual revelations.

Ian Paisley Junior won the North Antrim seat which had been held by his father, former DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley, for forty years. His victory was celebrated, as it traditional in Paisley territory, with a rendering of the hymn "Oh God from whom all blessings flow."

However, the DUP vote fell in a number of other areas.

A recount was called in traditionally hard-fought Fermanagh-South Tyrone after a unionist candidate was just six votes ahead of Sinn Fein.

On Wednesday night Mr Robinson triumphantly produced a letter from Gordon Brown which acceded to his demand that the financial block grant transferred from London to Belfast would not, as threatened, be cut in the present financial year.

This showed, he said, that the DUP was destined to enjoy enhanced influence at Westminster.

Mr Robinson's parliamentary downfall has both Westminster and local implications. He had been looking forward eagerly to heading a DUP phalanx to negotiate with the Tories or Labour in the event of a hung parliament.

Instead DUP representation at Westminister will be at a maximum of eight seats. The party will nonetheless remain highly interested in any approaches form either the Conservtives or Labour.

In Belfast politics, meanwhile, the question is whether Mr Robinson, who is effectively Northern Ireland's prime minister in tandem with Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, will remain in office locally.

Mr Robinson has been a mainstay of the peace process but the financial clouds surrounding him have clearly caused some damage. He, or his party, may feel that the time has come for a new leader since the loss of his seat will certainly reduce his authority.

Anti-Assembly elements did not poll well, with Mr Paisley Jr scoring a very comfortable victory over Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice, which opposes the peace process.

The menace of more militant anti-political elements was all too visible early this morning when counting in Londonderry was suspended due to a bomb alert. Votes from the Foyle and East Londonderry constituencies were being counted at a local sports centre when a hijacked car was abandoned nearby.

Army bomb experts ordered an evacuation of the premises while they carried out a controlled explosion on the vehicle. Counting was resumed after a disruption which lasted more than an hour. The incident was condemned by a wide range of politicians, who described it as an attack on democracy.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams comfortably held his West Belfast seat with a 17,000 majority, signalling that recent allegations of involvement in 1970s murders had no significant effect on his support.

The overall Sinn Fein performance confirmed the party's status as the major party of Northern Ireland nationalism while the DUP, though somewhat more bruised and battered, are still the leaders of loyalism.

The Ulster Unionists, by contrast, which had hoped for a boost from its link-up with the Conservatives, ended with no seats, shattering the Cameron hope of building a "new force" in Northern Ireland politics.

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