Analysis: Foster appeal ensures DUP triumph in NI elections

Sinn Féin on course to remain second largest party in North after posting solid performance

DUP leader Arlene Foster at the count in Omagh: she will be delighted with the performance of her party. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

DUP leader Arlene Foster at the count in Omagh: she will be delighted with the performance of her party. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

 

Sitting in the Sinn Féin offices in Derry at the latter stages of the Northern Assembly election campaign, Martin McGuinness made one definitive prediction.

He said that regardless of what might happen in some marginal constituencies, regardless of how the smaller parties might perform, the DUP and Sinn Féin still would be the driving forces behind Northern Ireland politics when all the votes had been counted.

He was absolutely correct. There are still several seats to be decided today, there may be a surprise or two as the cliffhanger contests are finally decided, but the DUP and Sinn Féin will still be in charge at Stormont.

There will be a slightly different complexion to Parliament Buildings, however. The deeper hues of orange and green will dominate but there will be a shade of red in the Assembly chamber as well.

There also may be a stronger shade of non-republican Green on the benches.

DUP leader Arlene Foster will be delighted with the performance of her party as will McGuinness. However, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt will be in anxious moods as they wait for the outcome of the marginal contests. Nor will Alliance leader David Ford be particularly contented.

But a little bit of the gloss will have been taken off the Sinn Féin successes if the party fails to win a third seat in Foyle after parachuting McGuinness in from Mid Ulster in an attempt to oust the SDLP as top dog in John Hume’s Derry.

At the time of writing it seemed certain Sinn Féin would hold on to its two seats in Derry while the SDLP would lose one of its three seats. It wasn’t absolutely guaranteed but it seemed that veteran socialist and journalist Eamonn McCann – he’s 73 – would be returned to Stormont in the Maiden City.

He had a good chance of joining his People Before Profit colleague Gerry Carroll – aged 28 – who romped home in West Belfast.

Independent voice

In the last Assembly, Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, who was also safe in North Antrim, was the dominant, so to speak, Independent voice. If McCann makes it to Stormont, politics will be livelier and Allister will have some competition from the opposite end of the left- right divide.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew seemed sure to be returned in North Down, while in Belfast South the party candidate Clare Bailey also appeared on course to take a seat.

Candidates such as Carroll, McCann and Claire Bailey will grab some of the headlines because they are new faces and will bring a stronger radical edge to Stormont.

But, again, as McGuinness said, the DUP and Sinn Féin will be in the driving seat.

The election is proving something of a triumph for the DUP leader and for the party strategists who decided to place almost the entire focus of the party campaign on Foster’s leadership and personality.

Many of the sixth seats in the 18 six-seater constituencies are unpredictable because of the vagaries of the proportional representation voting system but the DUP appeared well placed to be on or close to the high-water mark 38 seats it won in 2011.

Personal appeal

Foster’s personal appeal, together with the warning that unionists failing to vote DUP could result in Sinn Féin winning most seats and therefore taking the first minister post, clicked with many unionist voters notwithstanding that Sinn Féin did not even get close to posing such a threat.

Sinn Féin seemed sure to be on or close to the 29 seats it won in 2011. At the time of writing it had lost one of its five seats in Belfast West but had a chance of making a gain in Upper Bann and possibly East Derry.

Today will be a very anxious day for the SDLP and the UUP. The SDLP won 14 seats in 2011 but is under threat in Belfast South, where deputy leader Fearghal McKinney could lose his seat, and in Upper Bann and Foyle. Again at the time of writing it was unclear whether Alex Attwood could retain his seat in Belfast West.

To balance these negatives there were outside possibilities it could gain seats in Strangford and Fermanagh South Tyrone .

The UUP, which won 16 seats in 2011 but lost three through defections, was doing reasonably well, taking backback John McCallister’s seat in South Down and also gaining a seat in Lagan Valley from the DUP .

Alliance, which won eight seats five years ago, also seemed sure to consolidate.

All will not become clear until the tight close-call constituencies are decided today but what is clear is that the DUP and Sinn Féin still rule the roost at Stormont.