Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was a man whistling past a graveyard as he discussed the outcome of the Northern Irish local elections which were held on May 18. 

He took great solace in the fact that his party had retained the same number of seats they had going into the election, and called for unity among all the unionist parties. 

What he sidestepped was the fact that Sinn Féin candidates had polled eight percent higher than the DUP candidates. Donaldson is a smooth operator, but even he could not apply lipstick on this particular pig. 

What really happened last week is that we witnessed the spectacular collapse in the overall unionist vote which now stands at 40 percent, a drop of 14 percent since their 53 point share back in the 1970s. 

Nationalist parties stand at 41 percent. The border poll debate will now increase in intensity 

Unionism is in catastrophic decline and Donaldson was putting forward his solution to the problem – unionist parties coalescing into one major party. 

But he clearly does not understand the endgame that is coming for his party, Belfast Telegraph columnist Sam MacBride wrote. “Viewed in the long arc of history the scale of unionist decline is dramatic,” he said. 

Donaldson is bending reality, playing a sham game that unionism is still in charge in the North. But the election results do not lie.

In other words, unionism can gather as it likes, but they are now in the minority in Northern Ireland. The local elections showed that nationalist parties combined polled close to 30,000 more votes than unionists. 

Given the miserable results and the inexorable downward progress of the unionist vote, Donaldson may as well have been preaching from the prow of the Titanic which was built in Belfast, assuring people the boat would never sink. 

But sinking it is. Donaldson’s tactic of refusing to enter the duly elected Northern Ireland Assembly was seen by voters as a dishonest attempt to block a functioning government in the North which had been freely voted for by the people. 

Donaldson instead manufactured a phony Brexit complication that he said prevented his party taking their seats. It was a blatant effort to block an Assembly where Sinn Féin would have the title of first minister and unionism would provide the loyal opposition, and voters saw through the ruse. Donaldson and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made several efforts to sink the Assembly but failed. 

Last week’s poll showed just how committed and hard-working Sinn Féin are. Its members are relentless campaigners who surprised themselves by getting seats in unlikely council areas. 

From their campaigning, they learned just how angry voters were about Donaldson’s Assembly boycott. 

“Jeffrey Donaldson has become the greatest recruiting sergeant possible for republicans. The longer Michelle O’Neill is blocked from becoming first minister, the more voters are driven into the arms of her party,” Suzanne Breen, political editor of the Belfast Telegraph wrote. 

Now the pressure is on Donaldson who can either take his Assembly seat or seek ways to continue to obstruct. If it is the latter, the two governments must lead and announce a joint authority approach, and make plans for a border poll.

The time for procrastination is over. The people have spoken, loud and clear. 

*This editorial first appeared in the May 24 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.