Sinn Féin won and DUP lost

Posted By: March 06, 2017

Tom Kelly. Irish News. Belfast. Mondy, March 6, 2017

Best to get the congratulations and commiserations out of the way first. Elections as they often do, create winners and losers and this one was no different. Sinn Féin won,  and in style. They took the DUP to the wire, and a margin of a mere 1168 votes and one seat now separates the two monolithic blocks. The vote management of Sinn Féin was nothing short of remarkable.

Alliance had a good election, too, holding on to their eight seats. The SDLP did not get the routing expected and also returned with the same number of seats as before. The fact that they did it with some Lazarus-like comebacks made the election nail-bitingly exciting. The Greens too returned their two existing seats. Some commentators have unfairly and crudely dismissed those parties returning the same number of seats that they held in the previous Assembly as not being significant, but that’s pure self-indulgent rubbish and wishful thinking.

Had those parties performed equally to their 2016 results proportionally they all would have had fewer seats. And forget percentage points and the vagaries of the STV system its ‘bums on seats’ that count. No party or election manager ever worries too much about an inelegant finish if their candidate grabs the seat. It’s one of the reasons we have proportional representation in the first place.

And it’s the loss of seats that did for the Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt. The overall Ulster Unionist vote was marginally up, but the loss of six seats including that of the high-profile and affable Danny Kennedy was too much too bear. Mike took the honorable exit, and he took that decision quickly in order to stop endless media focus on his and the party’s future. The UUP still represent a sizeable chunk of the unionist electorate, and that’s not easily dismissed as some claim.

People before Profit failed to make any significant progress and lost their most enigmatic figure in the veteran protester Eamonn McCann. One suspects Gerry Carroll will languish as the sole anti- Sinn Féin representative in West Belfast very much as Alex Attwood did for the SDLP until his defeat on Friday. As usual, the TUV remains a one-man band failing to make any further gains. And lets not forget the Tories who despite the intervention of a second Secretary of State in our elections miserably received 0.1 per cent of the total vote.

Whatever the DUP now claim, before the election their focus was still very much on holding on to enough seats to trigger a petition of concern. That magic number of 30 has now eluded them.

They are still by far the largest unionist party – which beggars belief in many quarters. However, they have damaged Unionism – perhaps irreparably. The gibberish excuses blaming the media for DUP woes by Sammy Wilson are worthy of the wacky world of Trumpville – more foolhardy was blaming Mike Nesbitt.

The sole author of this Greek tragedy for the DUP lies solely with its Leader and those around her who advised on the tactics she employed – not just since the RHI debacle broke but since the result of the referendum. Ironically in time because of demographic changes in the population in The North, the Union will only be saved by Catholics transferring to Unionism – Arlene Foster made that toxic during this election.

The successful DUP strategy so carefully and subtly managed by Peter Robinson to assuage ‘buy in’ from the Catholic community to project Northern Ireland was blown apart by hubris. The Robinson strategy was working well until last Thursday as despite the Catholic electorate growing in numbers the nationalist share of the vote was actually falling. But not anyone more.

The belligerent and arrogant approach of the DUP in general and Arlene Foster, in particular, gave a rudderless Sinn Féin a new impetus for reaching out to dis-engaged younger voters.

The contradiction of Gerry Adams giving ‘moral’ advice was lost in the red mist of anger against the former First Minister. Sinn Féin wisely concentrated on the wider issues of identity, equality, and social change, the very issues that in 10 years of DUP/SF government they failed to deliver on.

Stormont now has a non-Unionist majority, and that is significant,  but it’s a broad-based coalition. What happens next depends on the DUP eating humble pie as those commitments made by SF to young voters will not be easily forgotten if they roll over for the seduction of power.