Election delivers night of drama and contrasting fortunes for Northern Ireland parties

If the General Election campaign in Northern Ireland was relatively low key, that certainly could not be said of the vote counts, as the region witnessed a night of high drama and shocks.

Here, we assesses the election performance of the main Stormont parties.

Sinn Fein:

Sinn Fein will be very satisfied with the result.

While party president Mary Lou McDonald talked of the prospect of “nailed on” gains during the campaign, senior figures privately acknowledged they would be content to emerge from the election as they entered it – with seven seats.

That’s what the abstentionist party achieved. Given the travails of the DUP, that as-you-were performance was sufficient for Sinn Fein to become Northern Ireland’s largest party at Westminster level, in terms of both seats and vote share.

Coming on the back of a disappointing outing in the European and local council elections in the Republic of Ireland in June, the UK General Election result will provide a much-needed fillip for Ms McDonald and vice-president Michelle O’Neill.

The party has already been pointing to its result as further evidence of what it believes is growing electoral evidence of trending support toward Irish unification.

Sinn Fein’s Pat Cullen celebrates with Sinn Fein’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald Credit: second left

The DUP:

The DUP suffered a disastrous election, dropping from eight seats to five and losing two key heartlands – North Antrim and Lagan Valley.

Ian Paisley’s defeat in the usual safe banker constituency of North Antrim at the hands of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister was a stunning result that few saw coming.

The loss of Lagan Valley, particularly to the non-unionist Alliance Party, was also highly symbolic.

The explanation for the party’s poor performance is not straightforward.

Pushback from harder line unionists on the DUP’s support for a UK Government package of measures on post-Brexit trading arrangements in January was definitely a factor.

The DUP used the Safeguarding the Union command paper to justify its decision to drop its two-year blockade on devolution at Stormont, but critics insisted the package did little to remove barriers on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and accused the party of overselling it.

Ian Paisley arrives at Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt for the election count. Credit: Niall Carson/PA

Then, in March, the party suffered a major shock when its then leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson unexpectedly quit after being charged with a series of historical sex offences – charges he denies.

Donaldson was the long-standing MP for Lagan Valley and attracted a significant personal vote in the constituency.

All that was clearly thrown up in air due to the manner of his departure from the political stage.

As well as the three losses (Paul Girvan failed to retain South Antrim), some of DUP’s biggest hitters returned with slashed majorities – no one more so than East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell who sneaked home by just 179 votes, having won in 2019 by almost 10,000.

One piece of good news for the party came in East Belfast where new leader Gavin Robinson retained his seat and saw off the challenge of Alliance leader Naomi Long, increasing his majority in the process.

Given his party lost out to both harder line and more moderate rivals, Mr Robinson will have a lot to reflect on when he considers the lessons from this chastening night.

New Alliance MP for Lagan Valley Sorcha Eastwood Credit: Oliver McVeigh/PA


This was an election of highs and lows for the cross-community Alliance Party.

The victory of Sorcha Eastwood in Lagan Valley was a triumph, but the comprehensive defeat of deputy leader and outgoing MP Stephen Farry in North Down was a real disappointment.

Ms Long’s fourth successive failure to beat Mr Robinson in East Belfast was also a blow.

After a series of elections in Northern Ireland where Alliance made major strides, leapfrogging the UUP and SDLP to become the region’s third largest party, this election has somewhat stalled that momentum.

Robin Swann celebrates becoming MP for South Antrim. Credit: centre

Ulster Unionist Party:

The UUP had set a goal of returning to the green benches of the House of Commons having been without an MP since 2017.

The party achieved that with former Stormont health minister Robin Swann’s decisive win in South Antrim – a victory that was all the more notable given he switched from his home constituency of North Antrim to enter the race.

The UUP had hoped its party councillor Diana Armstrong could have pushed Sinn Fein’s Pat Cullen – the RCN’s former general secretary – closer in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, but she was ultimately well beaten.

Despite that disappointment out west, the gain in South Antrim – and, with it, the re-establishment of a foothold at Westminster – will provide UUP leader Doug Beattie the basis to portray this election as a success.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood celebrates his election in Foyle Credit: Niall Carson/PA


The SDLP will be content with the outcome. Its priority was to retain the seats held by its leader Colum Eastwood and deputy leader Claire Hanna.

Both won with plenty to spare, albeit Mr Eastwood’s majority was significantly reduced after Sinn Fein mounted a more successful challenge in the SDLP citadel of Foyle than it mustered in 2019.

The party makes a big play of differentiating its regular presence in the House of Commons with the abstentionist position of its nationalist rivals, Sinn Fein.

The message appears to have resonated with supporters both in Foyle and Ms Hanna’s constituency of South Belfast and Mid Down.

The SDLP is a sister party of Labour and both Mr Eastwood and Ms Hanna believe they will be able to help shape the new UK Government’s approach to Northern Ireland in the days, months and years ahead.

Jim Allister taking to the media at Meadowbank Sports Arena, Magherafelt, during the count for the 2024 General Election Credit: Niall Carson/PA

The TUV:

Mr Allister’s victory in North Antrim, toppling a Paisley family dynasty that had endured for 54 years, was one of the most remarkable upsets in Northern Ireland’s political history.

Few outside the TUV believed it was possible.

The win provides a massive boost for the TUV, which has struggled to make a major electoral impact since its formation in 2007.

Mr Allister’s uncompromising stance in opposing Brexit’s so-called Irish Sea border earned him the backing of swathes of disaffected DUP voters, particularly in North Antrim.

The trained barrister will now have an opportunity to display his combative oratory skills at Westminster.

However, ironically, his win may actually end up providing the DUP some respite from his attacks at Stormont, given he will no longer be able to deliver his barbed interventions from the backbenches of the Assembly chamber.

Alex Easton won in East Belfast. Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

Alex Easton:

The independent unionist, who quit the DUP in 2021 accusing the party of lacking “respect, discipline or decency”, triumphed in North Down at the fourth time of asking. Relations with the DUP have thawed since his departure and the party, along with the TUV, backed Mr Easton in what was billed as a three-way battle with Mr Farry and UUP candidate and Iraq war colonel Tim Collins.

A significant challenge by Mr Collins did not materialise and Mr Easton also saw off Mr Farry by more than 7,000 votes.

It was a superb showing for the independent candidate who has had to battle post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since his parents died in a house fire in Bangor, Co Down last year.

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