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Closer than ever: but can Sinn Féin and the DUP work together?

John Manley
04 March, 2017 01:00

SINN Féin was last night celebrating a resurgence at the polls with the party closing the gap to just one seat between it and the DUP.

An increase in turnout of close to 10 per cent translated into a surge in support for new northern leader Michelle O'Neill and her party. Transfers helped the SDLP salvage what initially looked like being a poor performance, with a seat for former publican Pat Catney and veteran John Dallat returning to Stormont leaving the party at 12 seats.

It was a different story for the DUP and Arlene Foster, however, who may face a challenge to her leadership. She lost the party's chairman Maurice Morrow, chief whip Trevor Clarke and former minister Nelson McCausland. 

In a significant blow, unionism lost its overall majority in the assembly for the first time, falling from 56 seats after last May's election to 40.

Sinn Féin saw its share of first preference votes increase 3.9 percentage points to 27.9 per cent – taking it to within less than 1,200 votes of the DUP.

With the number of seats at Stormont reduced from 108 to 90, republicans were expected to lose some MLAs and one casualty was former independent Oliver McMullan in East Antrim. But despite that loss, Sinn Féin returned with the 27 seats it secured last May.

It was also an encouraging performance for the SDLP, which despite losing Alex Attwood in West Belfast and Richie McPhillips in Fermanagh-South Tyrone maintained its 12 seats, and superseded the UUP as Stormont's third largest party.

SDLP stalwart Alex Attwood failed to get reelected in West Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell

Colum Eastwood's party also saw the return of former deputy leader Dolores Kelly, who regained the Upper Bann seat she lost last year.

The DUP lost the greatest number of seats, dropping below the 30 MLAs which enables it to deploy a petition of concern. Coming in under the threshold that gives it the power veto legislation in the assembly could prove Arlene Foster's undoing, and having oversaw the first decline in her party's vote is likely to face a leadership challenge.

Among the notable losses for Stormont's largest party were its chairman Maurice Morrow, who failed to get elected alongside his party leader Arlene Foster in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

One-time Stormont culture minister Nelson McCausland failed to get re-elected in North Belfast, while former junior minister Emma Little-Pengelly lost in South Belfast. Stormont's last speaker Robin Newton, who last autumn was embroiled in the Charter NI controversy, late last night hung on to his East Belfast seat.

The Ulster Unionists' hopes that the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal would enable it to make significant inroads into the DUP's vote proved ill-founded and cost Mike Nesbitt his leadership. Despite being reelected in Strangford, the former UTV anchorman saw fit to fall on his sword hours before counting had concluded.

Among the UUP scalps were former regional development minister Danny Kennedy in Newry and Armagh and Sandra Overend in Mid Ulster.

Alliance retained its eight MLAs in the assembly and came close to gaining a seat in South Down.

Gerry Carroll kept People Before Profit's seat in West Belfast but his party colleague Eamonn McCann failed to get reelected in Foyle. The Greens kept the party's two seats in North Down and South Belfast.

Whereas in the previous assembly unionist parties had an overall majority, unionist representation it dropped to 40 out of 90 MLAs. Nationalist parties account for 39 of Stormont’s seats, while others have 11 seats.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams marked his party's performance by saying nationalists in the north had shown that they were opposed to Brexit.

Mr Adams said a special designation for the region was the only way to prevent a land frontier on the island.

"Whatever your position is on the constitutional issue, that the only way to stop a land frontier between a European state and the British state on this island is to make sure there is a special designated status within the European Union for this part of Ireland," he said.

Mr Adams said the result was a vote of confidence in his party's position.

"It is a vote for Irish unity, a vote for us together as a people," he said.

"As Ian Paisley famously told Martin McGuinness, we don't need Englishmen to govern us."

Gerry Adams arrives at the count in Belfast to celebrate a surge in support for Sinn Féin. Picture by Hugh Russell

He said it was a huge vote of thanks to Martin McGuinness, whose resignation as deputy first minister in January prompted the collapse of power-sharing.

Colum Eastwood said Sinn Féin were the "net beneficiaries" of a huge nationalist turnout intent on punishing Mrs Foster and the DUP.

"The Sinn Féin vote has gone up very highly, which is a result of the overall context of this election, which has been pitched as a battle between the DUP and Sinn Féin," he said.

"Those of us in the middle have been clearly squeezed."

Mr Eastwood failed to top the poll in his Foyle constituency – cradle of the SDLP – where Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion romped home almost 2,000 votes over the quota.

Putting a brave face on the result, Mr Eastwood claimed his party was not interested in topping polls but will be happy to increase its vote and retain its two seats in Derry.

Colum Eastwood SDLP party leader at the Foyle Arena Count.

The SDLP leader believes his party support will remain steady.

"Our overall vote is probably in and around where it was, it is just that Sinn Fein have been the net beneficiaries of a huge nationalist turnout to punish Arlene Foster.

"That seems very, very clear now."

 

04 March, 2017 01:00 News

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