DUP smarting from close encounter with Sinn Féin crocodile

Huge victory for SF election machine, as UUP leader Mike Nesbitt announces resignation

Michelle O’Neill Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland with party president Gerry Adams at Belfast count centre yesterday. Photograph Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Michelle O’Neill Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland with party president Gerry Adams at Belfast count centre yesterday. Photograph Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

 

Just after 7pm, Republican veteran and former prisoner Pat Sheehan was declared elected as a member of the Stormont Assembly.

He was surrounded by Sinn Féin representatives and supporters. But very unusually for Sinn Féin – a party that is a stickler for protocol – pride of place in the photograph was given to a guy dressed in a crocodile suit.

There were many words that could have described that moment. One senior Sinn Féin strategist put it best. “The word is schadenfreude,” he said.

For those not following the campaign too closely, the crocodile has become a kind of motif of these Assembly elections.

It all stems from an unfortunate slight on Sinn Féin made by DUP leader Arlene Foster in early February.

“If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more,” she said.

The “crocodile” became a politically-charged “meme” for Sinn Féin in the campaign, and gave rise to a minicraze of activists parading around in green suits featuring predatory teeth and swishy tails.

The outcome of these elections, which took place just 10 months after the last, had a clear message: Beware of a crocodile’s bite.

This was a huge victory for Sinn Féin. The election might have been fought on a novel platform – an issue over governance and “clean” politics – but it clearly became a battle between the largest of the cold-blooded animals in the electoral swamp. And Sinn Féin almost pipped the DUP, taking 27.9 per cent of the vote to the DUP’s 28.1 per cent.

Small gap

That difference was a minuscule 0.2 per cent of the vote, inconceivable up until very recently. There still may be a small gap in seats between them, but in an Assembly that lost 18 seats, Sinn Féin is coming back losing two, maybe three. On any measure, that is phenomenal.

The Sinn Féin election machine and vote-management was ruthless, ultra-organised and really impressive. There was lots of collateral damage: the upstarts from People Before Profit had a halt put to their gallop; the SDLP went backwards, and the Ulster Unionists also shipped huge damage. The DUP didn’t exactly lose, but it didn’t exactly win either.

The only exception was the Alliance, which did exceptionally well, with its best electoral performance in 30 years.

But to show how little influence the very real serious issue of “cash for ash” had on the unionist side, the former DUP minister who first blew the whistle on it, Jonathan Bell, got nowhere in Strangford, where he was eliminated early.

Another high-profile loser was Alex Attwood. In the echoey cavernous Titanic Exhibition Centre – as the rain just sheeted outside – he sounded rueful if philosophical.

In a memorable phrase he said of the election: “In big part it was about bogeymen and who was top dog . . .

“Really the primary issue is that two big parties have dug in. And in digging in they have put in jeopardy devolution itself.”

His SDLP colleague Nichola Mallon, who fought the campaign while heavily pregnant, was one of the few who bolstered her seat. She argued strongly for a centre ground politics.

Mania

“There is a choice. It does not have to be deadlock or division. There is a choice in the centre ground.

“Once we have the mania of today over, we will see that many people chose that option.”

But most didn’t. The transfer arrangement between the SDLP and the UUP backfired. It did not persuade people to cross the sectarian divide. Instead, many opted for the Alliance, who took votes from both parties. Its leader Naomi Long ran herself into exhaustion with a constant round of interviews.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams cut a serene figure, and his mood suggested accommodation rather than triumphalism, but not without a sting or two in the tail.

“I have talked to the DUP many times,” he told The Irish Times. “They are the same as the rest of us. They are decent enough people. They want good for their kids and so on.

“But they lost the run of themselves. You are living now in a totally different atmosphere. They got themselves in a little bubble. That bubble has been punctured by Martin McGuinness and by others. I don’t want to sound preachy. We should be reflective about this.

“If you are the DUP, you have to realise that you are only going to get limited chances to deal with this . . .

“We are not looking for top dog [status] or looking for any unfair advantage.”

But there are winners and there are losers. The DUP will be smarting from its close encounter with the crocodile. As for the UUP, and its unfortunate leader Mike Nesbitt, who announced he is to resign, it didn’t even take such an encounter to fell it.

Like the dinosaurs some just go into danger of extinction for no exact reason, other than loss of habitat.