Sinn Féin surge should facilitate Stormont return

At the entrance to a polling station in a quiet suburban area last Thursday, four party activists were seen taking a break from their canvassing to chat animatedly about the prospects which lay ahead.

What was striking about the friendly discussion was that it included candidates from Alliance, the DUP, the SDLP and Sinn Féin, all exchanging views about the events of the day.

It is well known that many councillors from different traditions engage well within their own civic chambers, and the chat at the school gates confirmed that they are equally happy to interact in full view of the voting public.

Given the good relationships which plainly exist at a range of levels, it is deeply frustrating that the same parties have been prevented from sitting down together at the table of a functioning Stormont executive for more than 15 months.

The clear message from the district council elections was that the overwhelming majority of citizens want their politicians to fully restore our devolved institutions without further delay.

Sinn Féin was beyond doubt the big winner from the contest, and has now been confirmed by a clear margin as the largest group within both our local government and Assembly structures.

It fought a positive campaign, highlighting the need for a partnership approach to resolving the key issues facing the entire community over health, education, the environment and above all the economy.

The DUP only marginally lost ground, although, with the support of less than 24 per cent of voters, is in no position to justify what amounts to a veto on political progress across the board.

Alliance had another encouraging performance, with the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists still in business but suffering from the DUP's blatant attempts to turn the wider debate into a crude orange versus green struggle.

Senior DUP figures have pushed themselves into an increasingly tight corner since trying to reverse their initial endorsement of the protocol arrangements which were an inevitable outcome of the Brexit debacle which they so disastrously supported.

There is an increasing sense that the return of the Stormont power-sharing administration is only a matter of time, and, with the council elections now completed, the focus must be on finalising the necessary negotiations.

If the DUP attempts to block progress, it must surely be aware that the debate will switch ever more decisively to the circumstances which can facilitate a border referendum.