The future of Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson was in doubt today after the sensational General Election defeat of the First Minister of the powersharing executive at Stormont.
After more than 30 years at Westminster, he lost his east Belfast seat to the city’s lord mayor Naomi Long, a result which stunned all sides, and left his party reeling from one of the biggest political upsets of all time in the North.
Just months after his wife Iris quit in disgrace as MP for Strangford following her admission of an affair, as well as damaging and embarrassing claims over the couple’s parliamentary expenses and his links to a controversial land deal, Mr Robinson was unceremoniously dumped by an electorate clearly uneasy with his, and her, private lives.
Even his closest colleagues gasped in disbelief when the defeat was confirmed in Newtownards, Co.Down. Ms Long now becomes the first member of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, founded 40 years ago, to be elected to the House of Commons.
The future of Sir Reg Empey, leader of the rival Ulster Unionist Party, could also be in doubt after he failed to topple the sitting DUP MP in south Antrim, the Rev William McCrea.
With Ian Paisley Jnr winning his father’s seat in North Antrim where he crushed his big and bitter rival, Jim Allister, leader of Traditional Unionist Voice, it was a relatively good election for the DUP.
Nigel Dodds held off a strong challenge by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly in North Belfast, but Mr Robinson’s shock defeat overshadowed the party’s overall performance and raised serious questions about his authority, and whether he will stay on as leader, and maybe even First Minister.
In the wake of the result, which saw his 6,000 majority turned into a 1,500 vote reverse, he vowed to fight on.
“I have a job to complete with my mandate at the Assembly and I will continue to carry out that important work,” he said, his voice cracked and strained.
The east Derry MP Gregory Campbell insisted Mr Robinson still had the party’s full and total confidence, but Jim Shannon who won Mrs Robinson’s old seat in Strangford stopped short of giving him his full endorsement. He declared: “We’ll have to make a decision on where we go as a party.”
It was an extraordinary triumph for Ms Long who, despite Mr Robinson’s domestic difficulties, delivered a stunning result nobody even contemplated.
She looked dazed as she acknowledged her victory and it was evident that Unionists disillusioned with the so-called Robinson political dynasty, as well as many republicans, were among the 12,839 who voted for her.
She said: “I went to the electorate with a track record of hard work with a passion for east Belfast where I have lived my whole life and with a dedication to serve them in an open and transparent way and give them my best and to build a better future for everyone in east Belfast.
“If that is what has won it, I’m pleased about that.”
Ms Long trailed in third in the 2005 poll, more than 11,000 votes behind Mr Robinson.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams admitted he was shocked, but said the DUP leader still had the authority to continue as First Minister.
He said: “I didn’t see it coming. I thought the DUP would take some small hit on their vote, but I didn’t see Peter losing his seat. He has had a very torrid time recently and politics is a very tough business.
“One can not help but feel empathy with Peter Robinson. You can be sacked privately, but if you are sacked by the public, it can be a very humbling experience and of course I feel sorry for him.”
All but one of the 18 Northern Ireland seats have been declared, but it will be later today before the Fermanagh/south Tyrone result is finally announced. It is going to a third recount after just a handful of votes separated the outgoing MP, Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, and the Independent Unionist Rodney Connor.
SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie will be among the new Northern Ireland MPs after she topped the poll in south Down.
Counting in Derry was suspended for a time after a hijacked car was abandoned in a car park beside the city’s Templemore Sports Centre.
Election staff involved in the Foyle and east Londonderry constituencies were evacuated, as well as some of the candidates, while army explosives experts were called in. Police later confirmed that a “viable device” had been found inside the vehicle.
Dissident republicans opposed to Sinn Féin’s peace process strategy were blamed. Police had been on high alert across the North and feared they would stage some sort of attack during the election. Several elderly people also had to be moved from their homes, but the counting later resumed.