Patrick Murphy: Gerry Adams is the most successful party leader in this election

Patrick Murphy

Political uncertainty in Britain, sectarian certainty here - that's the story of the general election.

The results represent a career-damaging loss for Theresa May, a political reprieve for Arlene Foster and a setback for Scotland's Nicola Sturgeon. In terms of a career boost, the real winner was Gerry Adams.

The likely outcome will be a more flexible Brexit, a soft Irish border and the increased possibility of another Stormont election, so that Sinn Féin and the DUP can build a two-party Assembly. If that is not enough to test your electoral patience, there could be another Westminster election within a year.

So where did it all go wrong for Mrs May? She lost a 12-point lead by basing her campaign solely on her own personality but, as her disastrous campaign showed, she did not have one. As humourless as Margaret Thatcher, she displayed that same arrogance and ignorance towards those outside her privileged circle, leaving the door open for Jeremy Corbyn's brave, if sometimes disorganised, campaign.

She is unlikely to survive as party leader. For the second time in a year, a Conservative prime minister has misread the electorate and lost a poll which did not have to be held.

It was a good election for Arlene Foster. The DUP's 36 per cent support is eight points up on the Assembly poll and gives the party a pivotal role in the formation of the next British government. It may represent the start of her rehabilitation, but she requires a fully functioning Stormont to repair the damage to her political career.

For Nicola Sturgeon, it was a poor performance. Calling for a second referendum on Scottish independence while opposing Brexit tended to confuse her electoral message.

That just leaves Gerry Adams as the most successful party leader in this election. For the second time in twenty years, Sinn Féin, has turned political adversity into electoral opportunity. The first followed the military defeat of the IRA in 1994, when it declared victory, accepted the legitimacy of the border and joined in governing the state which it had spent 30 years trying to destroy.

The second was the recent failure of Stormont, which the party had defended against all criticism for ten years. Now it alleges that Stormont practised corruption, inequality and a lack of integrity.

This ignores that SF, with the DUP, ran Stormont for those ten years, including the undemocratic use of petitions of concern, the Nama scandal (about which we still know little) and the RHI scandal (identified by an Audit Office report in July 2016, but ignored by the main political parties until this newspaper and other media highlighted it.)

The party's demand for integrity in Stormont during this election campaign may therefore be regarded by some as sheer political genius. Others will see it differently. Either way, it worked.

Its campaign was helped by its failure to promise anything in its brief election manifesto. Indeed, as its manifestos have become shorter in recent years, its electoral success has increased, which represents a triumph of public relations over politics.

SF is now the most popular constitutional nationalist movement since Daniel O'Connell's campaign for Catholic emancipation. Equally, the DUP is now the most successful unionist mass movement since Carson's anti-Home Rule campaign. For two parties which do not wish to return to the past, they are doing a good job in bringing us there.

For the SDLP, it represents the party's demise as a major political player. Colum Eastwood ran a good campaign, but by the time he became a general, his army had largely disappeared. This column has suggested more than once that the party had to adapt or die. It died on Thursday.

It is ironic that the party's flawed analysis of the political situation in the 1980s ultimately led to its own demise. It argued (later with SF support) that the problem here was one of two warring tribes, both of which had to be politically accommodated.

It should have realised that Britain was encouraging sectarian war in its own interests and the only solution was non-sectarianism. Instead it gave us the Good Friday Agreement, which would ultimately exclude the political moderates, including the SDLP, and ensure that the sectarian cream rose to the top. We are now knee-deep in cream and Britain still rules us, probably with DUP help.

But we cannot complain. It was all done through the ballot box, which suggests that our only political certainty now is that we seem to be settling for democratic sectarianism. There may be a lot more of it to come.


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