The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) suffered a major collapse in its vote today as a new force in right-wing unionist politics emerged in the North.
Sinn Féin topped the poll for the first time in its history with 26% of the vote when the European election results were announced in Belfast’s King’s Hall count centre.
The DUP vote plummeted from 32% vote share in 2004 to 18.2% today after the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) seized 13.7% support in its first major electoral outing.
In a further development the Ulster Unionist Party, in the first test of its electoral pact with the Conservatives, won the second of the three seats available in the North, forcing the DUP into an unprecedented third place.
Bairbre de Brun was elected on the first count for Sinn Féin, with the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists candidate Jim Nicholson taking the second seat, before Diane Dodds took the third seat for the DUP.
It was a record low point for the DUP which has topped every other European election held in the North.
There are now fears that a hardening of unionist opinion might have implications for the stability of the coalition government at Stormont, which is led by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
However, DUP leader Peter Robinson said unionist voters had to understand there was no alternative to power-sharing.
“A large portion of the unionist community find it very difficult to have Sinn Fein in government,” he said.
“I feel that we did the right thing. I believe that we have undersold our case.
“People need to know that there is no more acceptable alternative available.”
After a low voter turn-out, he said his party had to re-connect with the electorate and he accepted that concerns existed over the Westminster MPs expenses scandal.
The DUP vote was shattered as a result of a number of factors, party figures claimed today, but the results showed substantial support had shifted to leader of the hardline TUV Jim Allister.
He was a sitting MEP for the Democratic Unionists when he split from the party in 2007 over its decision to enter power-sharing government with Sinn Féin.
In 2008, the TUV rattled the DUP by taking votes off the party in a local government by-election in Dromore, Co Down.
However, Mr Allister said his party’s performance in its first major electoral contest heralded its arrival as a serious political player.
“That is a remarkable achievement and shows the depth of feeling that there is among many unionists who refuse to be rolled over in the era of Sinn Féin rule,” he said. “We are the success story of today.”
Mr Allister failed to secure a seat, but vowed to stand at the next general election in former DUP leader Ian Paisley’s north Antrim heartland.
The split in unionists ranks and a solid performance by Sinn Féin saw it become the first nationalist or republican party to ever top an election in the North.
Sinn Féin said that despite the success of the TUV, the vast majority of voters had backed parties in favour of the peace process and the power-sharing Assembly.
Sinn Féin’s Bairbre de Brun said her party had registered an historic victory, but she said her focus was on delivering a better future for all.
“I see the vote I received as an endorsement of positive politics,” she said.
“And I think what we have seen, and want to see, is positive leadership from all parties.
“We have to tackle the scourge of sectarianism. I promise to do my part.”
There were raucous scenes as the candidates were declared MEPs at the count centre.
TUV supporters waved Union flags and turned their backs on Ms de Brun as she spoke, while others twirled football rattles and jeered.
The DUP’s Diane Dodds refused to shake Ms de Brun’s hand, but she too was barracked by the TUV.
The hardliners, however, cheered a speech from their leader Jim Allister, where he adopted a former republican slogan for his own purposes and said: “We haven’t gone away you know.”
The Ulster Conservatives and Unionists candidate Jim Nicholson won 17.1% of the vote, a ½% increase on the veteran MEP’s last outing.
While he came third in the share of first preference votes, he jumped ahead of the DUP during the transfer of votes from eliminated candidates.
Mr Nicholson said: “The Conservatives and Unionists Party is back and we are back in style.”
The Conservative Party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson said: “This is an important step in our efforts to establish normal UK politics in Northern Ireland.”
The SDLP remained on much the same level as its past performance, with 16.2% of the vote.
The Alliance party candidate Ian Parsley took 5.5% of the vote, while the Greens’ candidate Stephen Agnew increased his party’s performance to take 3.3% of the vote, an increase of 2.3%.
Only 42.8% of people eligible to vote cast a ballot – a major drop on the figure of 51.72% at the last European election.
Turnout figures for the North’s 18 Westminster constituencies showed that regions of unionist voting strength suffered lower turnouts than areas that are predominantly nationalist.