Voters embrace change in North


A CLEAR AND unambiguous message has been sent to political parties and dissident elements in Northern Ireland: the voters want political co-operation rather than confrontation, no truck with terrorism. Assembly elections have strengthened the hands of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the DUP and Sinn Féin leaders who have been most outspoken about the need for teamwork and joint community action in promoting future prosperity and economic development. The Alliance Party was also rewarded.

The success of the DUP in reinforcing its position as the authoritative voice of unionism was echoed by the striking performance of its First Minister who secured a huge vote in a constituency that had rejected him as a Westminster MP a year earlier. Mr Robinson’s reinvention as a moderate, progressive politician, prepared to reach out to Sinn Féin and to work for the benefit of both communities, struck a chord with the electorate. The extent of the transformation was reflected in Mr Robinson’s decision to dedicate his success to the memory of the young, murdered Catholic policeman, Ronan Kerr of Omagh, who had encouraged people to work towards a united community and a shared society.

The DUP gained two seats, to 38; Sinn Féin added one to 29, and the Alliance Party secured an extra one for a total of 8. In contrast, the UUP dropped two seats to 16, while the SDLP shed a similar number to 14. The quality of organisation and leadership within the UUP and the SDLP, compared to their main competitors, had obvious bearings on the outcome. Those issues are likely to attract further attention in the coming weeks. Another significant development was the dismissal of the threat posed by the hardline Traditional Unionists. Its leader Jim Allister was eventually returned in North Antrim without reaching the quota.

Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness laid particular emphasis on the advances that had already been made. The transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster had opened up a new chapter in cross-party support and community engagement. The Executive was tackling serious economic and social issues that faced Northern Ireland and he called upon the UUP and the SDLP to engage fully in that process. Bitter complaints of overbearing behaviour by DUP and Sinn Féin ministers has fuelled speculation that the UUP and the SDLP may not participate in a new Executive. That would be a serious mistake.

Negotiations on the composition of a new Executive will begin this week and the outcome may be announced on Thursday, when the Assembly is due to meet. The positions of first minister and deputy first minister are already taken. But the distribution of other portfolios can be expected to generate disagreement and upset. In that regard and in spite of its possession of the justice portfolio by special arrangement, the Alliance Party could secure a second ministry under the d’Hondt system. There could be some change in the composition of the Executive.