Shock result in Foster’s own constituency leaves DUP reeling
Crocodile comments come back to bite as Sinn Féin benefits from huge turnout
DUP leader Arlene Foster, who had compared republicans to crocodiles during the election campaign, said she hoped for more civility in Northern politics. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
Sinn Féin’s day came in Fermanagh-South Tyrone on Friday as DUP leader Arlene Foster was dealt a blistering blow in her own constituency.
Not only did the republican party take three of the five seats, it was a major factor in Lord Maurice Morrow, Foster’s friend and DUP chairman, losing his seat after 40 years in frontline politics. The shock result left Foster, the former first minister, “devastated”.
Foster had compared republicans to crocodiles during the election campaign. It looked as if her utterances might have come back to bite her, given the huge number of fired-up republicans who took to the polls.
When she arrived at the count centre, amid heavy security, there was none of the fanfare of last May when her party was victorious and she was met at the door with hugs, kisses and cheers.
This time, she was ushered out of her armoured ministerial car and into Omagh Leisure Centre by her close protection officers in less than a minute as a large media pack swarmed around her.
As Foster was led through the door of the complex one journalist shouted: “Are you feeling optimistic?” She didn’t answer.
After weeks of intense political pressure following her handling of the botched renewable heat incentive scheme, her fate and that of her running mate was about to become clear in a snap election sparked by the resignation of Martin McGuinness from the role of deputy first minister.
Once inside she was brought to a private room where she remained with her family, friends and Morrow as two security men stood outside, much to the frustration of other candidates and politicians who criticised the DUP’s “special treatment”. “Some of us have to make do with sitting in the canteen,” said one disgruntled onlooker.
It is understood she was positioned in the room for security reasons.
For many of Foster’s aides the election count was like a wake as they recalled the good times – just 10 months ago – over tea and sandwiches. But, as ever, they remained supportive of Foster. Later, when she secured her seat on the second count, she received thunderous applause from the party faithful, not least because she and Morrow had achieved their highest ever Assembly vote in the constituency.
Despite this, Foster lost her running mate “and dear friend” when Morrow fell at the final hurdle. She looked close to tears as he pledged to stick by his leader “no matter what”.
“For me this part of it is all over,” said Morrow. “My life will change, it will go in a different direction I suspect. But Arlene Foster can count on my support in the days ahead in whatever capacity she wants.”
Poor vote management
A source said if vote management had been better the party may have held on to two seats. “The TUV didn’t transfer to other unionists.”
Foster acknowledged that Sinn Féin had “mobilised their vote in a very effective way”.
She wasn’t wrong about the turnout, which in nationalist areas around Fermanagh-South Tyrone had greatly increased.
There were jubilant scenes when Sinn Féin’s success was confirmed. A large tricolour was held up behind them and a man dressed as a crocodile suddenly appeared out of nowhere for a group hug.
Foster snapped back, telling reporters: “Sinn Féin talk about respect and here we have a tricolour being waved about, a crocodile walking about. This is the type of intimidation that many unionists here have to face.”
Seán Lynch, a former IRA commander, former MP Michelle Gildernew and new candidate Jemma Dolan picked up three seats, a victory that was largely down to more organised vote management than last year when the party ended up losing to the SDLP’s Richie McPhillips.
As predicted, the Ulster Unionist Party’s Rosemary Barton managed to scrape in for the final seat but it was a hard fight and, when coupled with the exit of McPhillips, showed a disastrous outcome in one of Northern Ireland’s most rural constituencies for Stormont’s official opposition parties.
The battle in Fermanagh-South Tyrone was all about Sinn Féin against the DUP. All eyes were on Foster when she made a more sombre declaration speech than last time.
“Let us now move forward with hope, hope that the common good will be able to prevail over narrow minded interests, hope that civility can return to our politics and hope that a Northern Ireland with so many overlapping cultural identities can be home to all of us,” she said. “There is work to be done to quickly mend the relationship, which has been frayed by the discord of this election.”
The pledge was not lost on Gildernew who took to the podium and directed her remarks to Foster, who was watching from the sidelines with her coat on, ready for home.
As Lynch and Dolan looked on, the former agriculture minister said: “I listened very closely to the leader of the DUP talking about civility and I really hope that that civility extends to the Irish language community and the LGBT community.”
Foster, flanked by party mates Keith Elliott and Raymond Farrell, gave a steely look towards Gildernew.
“Did you see the face on Foster?” remarked one Sinn Féin supporter, with a smile.
Then, as Lynch addressed the crowd, Foster walked out with party members, to which the former IRA commander – who was captured by the SAS in 1986 while trying to plant a bomb to kill security forces near Rosslea – quipped “see you later, alligator” to loud cheers.
It is no secret that Foster has a difficult relationship with Lynch, whose accomplice, Seamus McElwaine – named by Foster as the man who previously tried to shoot dead her father – was killed on that night. Tension between the two was more apparent than ever on Friday night.
As Sinn Féin continued the celebrations in the main hall, Foster was led out of the count centre, refusing to speak to the BBC’s Julian Fowler, and back into her armoured vehicle.
The food that had been brought to her “special room” was packed away and the dozens of supporters who had been up from the crack of dawn called it a night.
Like Foster, they left without saying a word.