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UK vote gives Irish nationalists hope for historic gains

BELFAST (Reuters) - Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds lost his seat in the British parliament on Friday, increasing the chances of Northern Ireland electing more Irish nationalists than pro-British unionists for the first time on Friday.

In what would be a first since the partition of Ireland in 1921, the result may amplify calls from nationalists for a vote to split from the rest of the United Kingdom, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was set for a resounding victory across the union.

With 12 of the 18 seats declared, the DUP looked set to remain the biggest party but could hold fewer seats than the pro-Irish Sinn Fein and SDLP. The cross-community Alliance Party also took one seat, adding to the majority of anti-Brexit MPs.

Dodds had become a power broker during the Brexit talks when the DUP propped up the minority Conservative Party government after the last election. His defeat completed a humiliation for the party which said unionists were betrayed by the eventual deal Johnson struck to leave the European Union.

He was ousted by John Finucane, the son of one of the most high-profile victims of 30 years of sectarian bloodshed which was largely ended by a 1998 peace deal. He is the first Sinn Fein MP returned in the historically pro-British constituency of North Belfast.

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Finucane was aided by a pact between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, both in favor of Britain staying in the European Union. The parties agreed not to compete in some areas to avoid splitting the remain vote. Northern Ireland voted 56% to 44% to remain.

“North Belfast rejects Brexit. North Belfast wants to remain. North Belfast wants to keep its place in the EU,” said Finucane, who paid tribute to his father, Pat, shot dead in front of his family by pro-British loyalist militants in 1989.

Brexit has raised doubts over whether the United Kingdom can hold together. An exit poll showed the Scottish National Party, also opposed to Brexit, would win 55 of 59 seats in Scotland, setting the scene for demands for a second independence vote.

Dodds’ party colleague in the devolved Northern Ireland assembly, Edwin Poots, said the deputy leader’s defeat was “very damaging for unionism”.

“Ultimately if we are going to protect the union, enhance the union and secure the union, then we’re going to have to have people voting unionist,” Poots told BBC Northern Ireland.

Reporting by Ian Graham, writing by Padraic Halpin