One of the things that annoyed unionists about Alasdair McDonnell’s victory in South Belfast in the 2005 Westminster election was that they felt that he did not deserve to have won the seat, as the total nationalist vote (41.3% of the votes cast) was less than the total unionist vote (51.1%). McDonnell has ‘stolen’ a unionist seat, in the minds of unionists. Well last week they were forced to admit that he did actually have a right to the seat, and that it is no longer a ‘unionist’ seat. McDonnell – the sole nationalist candidate – won 41.0% of the vote, which was almost the same as the combined unionist vote, but actually exceeded it by 16 votes. In South Belfast now nationalists outnumber unionists.
In East Belfast, though, Naomi Long’s shock defeat of Peter Robinson was more of a theft in unionist terms. Although Long got 37.2% of the vote, the combined unionist vote was 59.3% - but it was split three ways and Long slipped in through the middle. There can be little doubt, though, that East Belfast is a majority-unionist seat, and the Alliance Party has just borrowed it. They will have an incumbency advantage next time, but if unionism gets its act together it will get East Belfast back.
No other seats were ‘borrowed’ last week – though Fermanagh and South Tyrone came close. The defeat of unionist-unity candidate Rodney Connor, and continuing demographic changes, make it unlikely that unionism will ever feel that this is a seat that they can steal again, and it may become more like West Tyrone or Mid Ulster, where several unionist parties compete half-heartedly in the knowledge that none of them will actually win. Last Thursday may have represented the end of any unionist hopes west of the Bann.