Sinn Fein enjoys Titanic victory as rivals are left licking their wounds on the sidelines

Posted By: March 04, 2017

Ivan Little. Belfast Telegraph. March 4, 2017

There were no crocodile tears for Arlene Foster from Michelle O’Neill, Gerry Adams or their Sinn Fein supporters as they swaggered triumphantly around the Titanic Exhibition Center in Belfast yesterday, acknowledging that the former First Minister had helped them take a major bite out of the opposition in the snap Assembly election.

Mr. Adams, who was repeatedly name-checked as a Republican bogeyman by Mrs. Foster in the run-up to what was branded the RHI poll, couldn’t resist dubbing the downpours outside as “good weather for crocodiles” – mocking the DUP leader’s reptilian rebuff for Sinn Fein.

The DUP members at the Belfast count were decidedly less ebullient. Former Stormont Minister Nelson McCausland, who later lost his seat in the North Belfast poll – unusually for him – waved away requests for interviews.

But other party figures were more upbeat that it hadn’t been as bad a day as observers had predicted for the DUP, saying that their vote had held up “remarkably well in a poisonous atmosphere” against them and in particular Mrs. Foster.

But there was no denying that it was a grim day for the UUP and for a number of veteran politicians who saw their careers floundering in the cavernous Titanic building which was so coat-sheddingly warm that cynics wondered if the people in charge had availed of the generous RHI incentives themselves.

One of the biggest losers was the SDLP’s former Environment Minister Alex Attwood, who admitted that his defeat in West Belfast would bring the curtain down on his 31 years in politics.

He added: “I’m obviously disappointed for myself, but more so for my party and for the people of the constituency who don’t have an SDLP MLA in Stormont.”

As he departed from the center, he passed within a few feet of the incoming Sinn Fein TD, Mary Lou McDonald who’d traveled from the Republic to savor the Sinn Fein successes.

Their exchange was no more than a nodded hello, but their body language spoke volumes of their differing emotions.

However, the Sinn Fein victory parade of leaders wasn’t over. And the party faithful was roaring and clapping again as their new Stormont supremo Michelle O’Neill positively bounced into the arena to revel in their increased vote in the increased turn-out throughout the province. Gerry Adams had said it was a vote of thanks for his ailing colleague Martin McGuinness and Mrs. O’Neill, who succeeded him, said: “The people have had their say. We now need to get down to the business of fixing what’s wrong.”

There was no celebratory mood for Mike Nesbitt, whose dreams of a new Ulster Unionist/SDLP power base at Stormont were shattered by the results and the inevitable followed as, in the foyer of the Belfast count center, TV relayed his downcast resignation speech.

Back inside, cartoonist Brian John Spencer had been busy drawing a starkly different image of Arlene Foster from the one he sketched ten months ago during the last Assembly count.

He said: “Last year I drew her as a steely, immovable and impressive figure outside Stormont beside Carson’s statue.

“But this year I am drawing her on top of a plinth, much like the one that Saddam Hussein’s statue was on before it was hauled down by Iraqis. I’m not saying that’s where she’s going, but there’s a sense in the gloomy atmosphere here that support for her is flowing away.”

Not so, according to East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who was telling everyone who would listen that Mrs. Foster still had the party’s backing.

Soon word came through from Omagh that the newly-returned MLA for Fermanagh-South Tyrone was calling on Sinn Fein to respect her mandate.

Even so, her new arch-enemy within the DUP, David McIlveen, who was working as a commentator for the BBC, was standing nearby at the Belfast count and standing by his prediction from the night before that his leader will be gone by Monday.

He said the big question that had to be answered was how the gap between the DUP and nationalists had been narrowed so dramatically at the polls in just ten months.

He added: “There was an attempt early on to portray Arlene as being a stronger unionist than Ian Paisley or Peter Robinson before her. I don’t think anybody can credibly buy that. This has been a mismanagement, and hopefully, it’s a wake-up call to the party.”

Another politician turned analyst was also at the count. Daithi McKay, who left Sinn Fein after allegations that he coached loyalist Jamie Bryson for a Stormont committee hearing, said he couldn’t envisage going back into politics even though it had, for him, been an addiction.

He described his former party’s achievements as “huge.”

A year ago the media presence around him at the Belfast count was relatively small. Yesterday there wasn’t a spare seat in the house and competition among broadcasters to land the first interviews with the winners, losers and even the non-runners was fierce.

But not all the cameras were there to capture the serious side of the elections. A team of satirists was at the count to make a spoof documentary.

The BBC’s Joel Taggart, who was there for Radio Ulster, was insisting that he wasn’t being distracted by another contest tomorrow.

“I’m commentating on the Linfield v Crusaders cup game at Seaview, and there’s still research to do, but my mind is firmly on the election today,” he said.

No such conflict of interest, however, for RTE’s Bryan Dobson, who cut his teeth as a journalist in Belfast and who was readying himself for an extended Six One News bulletin, though he admitted the recent political machinations in the Dail were probably exercising more minds down south than the Northern Ireland election.

Downpatrick photographer Bobbie Hanvey quickly whisked Dobson away to add him to his portfolio of pictures of hundreds of journalists who’ve covered the Troubles, and the elections, in Northern Ireland.

And if any reminders were needed of those violent times, they were provided by the sight of armed PSNI officers strolling through the Titanic building, with their rifles at their sides.

But, unlike the feisty election counts of the past when republicans and loyalists fought each other with their fists, as well as with their political arguments, there was nothing untoward to report.

The Alliance Party’s leader, Naomi Long, remembers the bruising battles of more recent times.

But yesterday she could hardly contain her elation about topping the East Belfast poll – she called it Alliance’s best-ever in the constituency – and about her party’s gains as a whole.

She didn’t, however, attribute the upswing to Mrs. Foster’s stance on RHI.

“I don’t think it has been a vote against her. I think there were lots of parties standing against her. We focused on offering people a positive alternative and people responded to it,” she added.