NI Assembly: Nationalism felt it was poked in the stomach and it snarled back

Who really believed Sinn Féin would come within a whisker of equalling the DUP?

In the 90-member new Assembly there are 40 unionists (DUP, Ulster Unionists, Traditional Unionist Voice and independent unionist) and 39 nationalists (Sinn Féin and the SDLP). It is a long way from the 1921 election in the North, when Unionists also claimed 40 seats. That, however, was a 52-seat assembly.

In this election everything went right for Sinn Féin.

It portrayed Arlene Foster as the ogre; she responded by casting Gerry Adams as the bogey man.

The bogey man won.

Adams, as was his entitlement, did a brief walkabout on the Falls Road on Saturday evening with an entourage of senior Sinn Féiners who work on both sides of the Border. Here was 32-county Sinn Féin on the march.


Adams didn’t crow too much but neither did he fail to remind Arlene Foster, the DUP and unionism in general that the republican movement is on your tail.

“Clearly the unionist majority in the Assembly has been ended and the notion of a permanent or perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” said the Sinn Féin president.

When you look at the stats who could disagree? The DUP entered the election with 38 seats, 10 ahead of Sinn Féin, and came out of it with 28 seats, just one bare, single, solitary seat in front of Sinn Féin. Even allowing for the reduction in the size of the Assembly by 18 seats, it was a stunning achievement by Sinn Féin.

The next big business is to try to get Stormont functioning again. Dublin and London will have a role there. Over the weekend DUP and Sinn Féin politicians such as Jeffrey Donaldson and Simon Hamilton, and Gerry Adams, Michelle O'Neill and John O'Dowd for the most part were sounding conciliatory and asserting how they want devolution restored.

But the hurdle of Sinn Féin’s demand that Arlene Foster keep out of the Northern Executive until the public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme is resolved is very difficult to surmount. That too is work in progress.

Adams said the election and the vote was “an stairiúl” and while even in the first language it is an abused word neither could it be denied that the election indeed was historic, and as the Sinn Féin president also said, in “many ways a watershed” moment.

Not only is Sinn Féin only one seat behind the DUP, but unionists for the first time since partition don’t have a majority at Stormont. In the 90-member new Assembly there are 40 unionists and 39 nationalists.

That brings the big constitutional question of a Border poll and a united Ireland much higher up the agenda. Previously, Northern Secretary James Brokenshire, based on the unionist majority, could dismiss talk of a Border poll, but now after this election and with demographic shifts and Brexit he will face more difficult challenges to justify ruling out such a plebiscite. That will cause unionists great anxiety.

On Friday, the fact that close to 110,000 more people than 10 months ago voted in this election, gave initial hope to the centre-ground parties such as the UUP, SDLP and Alliance that this would be their day. But that balloon soon was punctured. The SDLP and Alliance did well to hold their respective 12 and 8 seats, which represents a net gain in the reduced Assembly, but Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt felt he had no option but to resign such was the drop in seats from 16 to 10.

Sinn Féin was the main beneficiary of the day, while the DUP still is unionist top dog. Such was the anger over “cash for ash”, so successfully had Adams and his colleagues sold the line of “arrogant Arlene” and nationalism being disrespected, so desperately was the DUP fighting a rearguard battle throughout the election campaign, that we all wrote that in extraordinary circumstances there was a possibility Sinn Féin could overhaul the DUP.

But who really believed Sinn Féin would come within a whisker of equalling or, on a very lucky day, surpassing the DUP?

As one colleague commented, the nationalist base was so energised that it was “as if they thought they were back on the Civil Rights marches again”.

It’s all a little unfair on Foster. Some of her wounds were self-inflicted and for sure she mishandled the RHI issue, but, despite sly Sinn Féin insinuations, there is absolutely no evidence of corruption.

David Gordon, a journalist and former and very recent chief adviser to Foster and Martin McGuinness, suggested that this was a series of cock-ups rather than a conspiracy. Senior civil servants also have indicated that they, rather than Foster, should bear chief responsibility for the multi-million pound foul-up.

If those circumstances are correct, then it is understandable that Foster would bridle at unsubstantiated assaults on her good name. That constant attack, rather too cleverly made by Sinn Féin, probably was the issue that got her hackles up and prompted her to a choice of sharp and unhappy retaliatory metaphors.

Still, republicans have been called far worse than “crocodiles” and in turn have called people far worse names, not to mention some of them doing far worse things.

But, bottom line, nationalism felt disrespected and up with that it would no longer put. Foster’s lack of grace and hard words got the nationalist vote out in strength. That’s a point unionists, when their grief, disappointment and anger settles down, would need to bear in mind for the future.

Generally, if you offer good manners you will get good manners back. Martin McGuinness gave good manners, but the view was Arlene Foster went out of her way to respond with bad manners. These are very simple lessons.

On a basic human level the election must have been personally, as well as politically, brutal and bruising for her. That takes a toll on a person.

It’s difficult to tell what will happen next.

The party thus far is sticking with her, although some in the DUP have concerns about Sinn Féin continuing to run rings around Foster and the party. And neither would the DUP want Foster as the politician who keeps getting the nationalist vote out – whether in future elections or a referendum on a united Ireland.

If, however, she can come through the fire of this election and if the words of support from her senior colleagues are genuine words, and if she still has the ambition and desire to remain in politics and be the leader of unionism, then she may emerge forged as a stronger and wiser politician and woman.

But if she does want to stay in politics she must also come forward as a more emollient and astute leader.

Hitherto nationalism was constitutionally content with powersharing and a role for Dublin as expressed through the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

This time nationalism felt it was poked in the stomach and it snarled back.

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times