Assembly vote: New faces liven up Stormont naughty corner

Presence of pugnacious Eamonn McCann and Jim Allister will mean noisier executive

Eamonn McCann (People Before Profit - left) and Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice) are two pugnacious politicians and speakers. From the left and right, the naughty corner will be naughtier and noisier this time around. File photographs: PA Wire

Eamonn McCann (People Before Profit - left) and Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice) are two pugnacious politicians and speakers. From the left and right, the naughty corner will be naughtier and noisier this time around. File photographs: PA Wire

 

‘Project Fear’ and personality were the two weapons that made this a triumphant Northern Assembly election for the DUP and its leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster.

Sinn Féin hoped the personality of Martin McGuinness would also yield dividends for the party in his native Derry, but the Deputy First Minister did not deliver. Still, for the party to lose just one seat won’t overly upset the status quo.

It was a bad election for the SDLP and its new leader Colum Eastwood and, while it is hardly much consolation, it could have been worse.

Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionists were hoping for growth, but it didn’t happen. Nonetheless, they held their ground on the 2011 Assembly return and that’s not a bad result.

Alliance leader David Ford was anticipating that the party would improve on the eight seats it won five years ago, but that didn’t happen either. That was partly due to the strong performance of the Greens, with Northern leader Steven Agnew comfortably holding his seat in North Down and Claire Bailey gaining a second seat for the party in South Belfast, where Alliance was hoping to increase its representation from one to two.

After every election, particularly in unionist-dominated constituencies along the North’s Bible Belt, people in the count centres are treated to evangelical hymns and renditions of God Save the Queen from successful DUP candidates.

There was a first this year in that in Foyle a different anthem was heard, the socialist Internationale - rather croakily led by activist and writer Eamonn McCann - who 47 years after he first ran for Stormont was at last returned to the big house on the hill.

Former fiefdom

McCann, who is 73, will be joined in the Assembly chamber by 28-year-old People Before Profit colleague Gerry Carroll, who topped the poll in West Belfast, thus depriving Sinn Féin of one of its five seats in Gerry Adams’s former fiefdom.

Parliament Buildings in Stormont should be livelier for the next five years. McCann, Carroll, Agnew and Bailey will sit in what is dubbed the “naughty corner” of the Assembly chamber, where Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister QC also sits. Allister was easily returned in North Antrim, but failed to bring anybody into Stormont with him.

McCann and Allister are two pugnacious politicians and speakers. From the left and right, the naughty corner will be naughtier and noisier this time around.

Before the election, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt placed a note in a sealed letter predicting that his party would win 18 or 19 seats.

In the last Assembly the UUP won 16, but three of his MLAs decamped to other parties – two to the ill-fated NI21 and one to Ukip.

He was disappointed to just take 16, and put down the absence of growth to Project Fear – the DUP’s warning that if unionists didn’t stick with the DUP they might end up with Sinn Féin as the largest party and Martin McGuinness as First Minister.

That certainly was a factor in the DUP winning 38 seats and the UUP failing to build on the momentum that Nesbitt had created for the party. But you can only bring that bucket to the well so often, and perhaps next time around - possibly when the nationalist-unionist demographics are closer - Project Fear won’t work so well for the DUP.

Huge asset

But the other big plus factor for the DUP was Arlene Foster. Right from the start of the campaign the whole concentration was on her as leader – it was more “vote for Arlene” than “vote for the DUP”, and it worked. She was a huge asset for the DUP.

Had Peter Robinson still been at the tiller, Nesbitt might have achieved his prediction.

Of all the leaders, the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood will be most deflated. In 1998 the SDLP was the main nationalist party with 24 seats, but the graph has pointed south since then – 18 seats in 2003, 16 in 2007, 14 in 2011 and now 12.

Skin of his teeth

It could have been a lot worse but for Alex Attwood holding his seat in West Belfast by the skin of his teeth, and Richie McPhillips gaining a seat in Fermanagh-South Tyrone - assisted by Sinn Féin candidate selection mismanagement.

But if he has ambition and energy, Eastwood is still the best current hope for the party.

With deputy leader Fearghal McKinney losing his seat, this is particularly true if he takes on someone of the calibre of MLA Claire Hanna or newcomer Daniel McCrossan as his deputy.

After a dull election campaign and fairly interesting election count there is some change, but not a lot of it.

Stormont should be a more interesting place these coming five years - but it’s a place where Arlene and Martin remain firmly in charge.

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