DUBLIN, Ireland ─ One of the biggest shocks in the United Kingdom's general election came in Belfast, where the leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest party lost the parliamentary seat he has kept warm for 31 years.
Peter Robinson, who heads the Democratic Unionist Party, conceded defeat in East Belfast to Naomi Long, deputy leader of the moderate Alliance party, which straddles the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.
Six months ago Robinson and his wife, Iris, were both members of the British parliament, and enjoying such a wealthy life style that they were known as the “Swish Family Robinson.” Iris resigned in disgrace last December, just before news broke of her affair with a teenage boy, and of financial irregularities in the relationship.
The offense caused by the Robinson family scandal clearly offended his staunchly Protestant constituents more than pundits and opinion polls anticipated. His supporters gasped in disbelief as the pile of ballot papers for Naomi Long, who is Belfast’s Lord Mayor, grew higher in the early morning count.
Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the rival Ulster Unionist Party’s gamble on forming an alliance with David Cameron’s Conservative Party proved a disaster. Its leader Sir Reg Empey was defeated in South Antrim, having gone there as a "carpet bagger" from East Belfast, having assumed, like everyone else, that Robinson was unbeatable. The failure of his party to gain even one seat underlined the futility of David Cameron’s visit to Northern Ireland on Tuesday to bolster his vote.
While the victory for the Alliance Party in East Belfast was a stunning gain for moderation in Northern Ireland, it should not be taken as evidence of a sea change in traditional voting patterns. Long’s victory margin of 1,500 was well under the 1,800 votes that went to an ultra-unionist rival of Robinson, David Vance of the Traditional Unionist Voice.
As always in most of the 18 constituencies the vote was a religious headcount, with mostly Catholic voters choosing between Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and Protestants rowing in behind pro-union candidates. With only one ballot undecided, the result early Friday was: Democratic Unionist Party 8; Independent Unionist 1; Sinn Fein 4; SDLP 3; and Alliance 1.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was re-elected comfortably in West Belfast with a slightly reduced majority.
Peter Robinson will still remain a force in Northern Ireland politics as first minister of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly.
“I have a job to do and I have a job to complete with my mandate in the assembly,” he said after his defeat. “I will continue to carry out that important work. I think it is vital for the sake of Northern Ireland that we continue the momentum of moving forward.”
The North Antrim seat held for 40 years by Rev. Ian Paisley, former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, was won by his son, Ian Paisley Jr., who beat off a challenge by his bitter unionist rival, Jim Allister of Traditional Unionist Voice.