Sinn Féin is now, by a short head, the North’s largest party with 25.5% of the vote. The reduction in its total vote from 174,530 to 171,942 since the 2005 General election can be attributed to its withdrawing from South Belfast, where it had taken 2,882 five years ago.
Since then, the Sinn Féin leadership has butchered many of the sacred cows of Irish Republicanism. The IRA has decommissioned, and the Party now supports the police.
Republican dissidents claimed massive defections from Sinn Féin and the IRA. Like Dublin’s footballers, the Republican dissidents flattered to deceive and failed to turn up for the real challenge. When the election came, there were neither dissident Republican candidates, nor even proxies. Sinn Féin number-crunchers accept some Republicans – around 10,000 – consciously boycotted the poll.
Like Kerry footballers, Sinn Féin is resilient and should not be underestimated. There has been widespread media coverage of allegations about Gerry Adams, most recently concerning involvement in the 1972 murder of Jean McConville. These fascinated commentators, but had little impact with voters. In West Belfast, Adams increased his percentage poll by 3.5%, taking 71% of the total vote.
SF’s Michelle Gildernew increased her vote by 2,400 to retain Fermanagh and South Tyrone by four votes. This was despite Sinn Féin having had very public problems in Fermanagh: four councillors (one also an Assembly member) have departed in the past five years, for destinations as diverse as Fianna Fáil and the Socialist Party: both the Continuity and Real IRAs are active in the county.
The DUP were the other big winners. It crushed the challenge from its right. A party insider said: “Unionism has resolved that devolution is here to stay – they were happy to let Allister put a bit of a frightener on – but when they looked over into the abyss they decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. The arguments now aren’t about Sinn Féin in Government – they’re about how Northern Ireland should be run and how we relate to the rest of the United Kingdom”.
The DUP was 3,726 votes behind Sinn Féin because of not contesting Fermanagh-South Tyrone, instead backing a Unionist unity candidate. The DUP had polled over 14,000 in the constituency in 2005, and would have at least held that vote.
The DUP successfully changed from the party that always said ‘No’ to the party that says ‘Yes’, while holding its core support. The party insider said: “I don’t think its without significance that this was a nearly entirely ‘positive’ campaign by the DUP – and possibly the first one of that kind we’ve run. We ran it on a platform very largely of voting for us and not simply against opponents”.
Two newly-elected MPs were particularly successful. Ian ‘Baby Doc’ Paisley in North Antrim is the Jackie Healy-Rae of Northern politics. All he lacks is the cap. ‘Baby Doc’ is a figure of fun in the media, and hams it up shamelessly. He will never utter a profundity when he can use a glib soundbite instead.
Like Healy-Rae in South Kerry, the negative media image wins him support in North Antrim. He is an energetic constituency worker. He showed himself a seriously focused politician, annihilating Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister to retain the seat his father held for 40 years, with a majority of 12,000. The scale of this victory stunned the DUP. The insider said: “We had heard stories from some of our North Antrim people that Ian was beating Jim incredibly strongly but we were putting that down to a bit of over-enthusiasm on their part. As it turns out they were actually correct”.
The other big DUP winner was Jim Shannon in Strangford. Scandal forced Iris Robinson to resign the seat. It cost her husband, Peter Robinson, his seat in neighbouring East Belfast. But Shannon took Strangford with a majority of nearly 6,000. At one time, Shannon was perceived as a hardliner in the DUP. Now he is a strong advocate of the current arrangement. Unlike either of the Swish Family Robinson, he is a man of the soil. Originally from Sixmilecross in Tyrone, he now runs a pork-processing business at Greyabbey on the Ards Peninsula. Shannon’s reputation is as a hard constituency worker. A Nationalist voter in the overwhelmingly Catholic town of Portaferry said: “He’d not be respected here for his politics, but he’d be respected as a worker”.
Peter Robinson was a winner as well as a loser. The Unionist electorate supported his strategy. Paradoxically, despite losing his Westminster seat, his position in the DUP has been strengthened. The potential rivals to his leadership have all been exported to Westminster, because of the DUP’s decision that MPs will no longer sit in the Assembly.
The Alliance Party was the only mainstream party to increase its vote in absolute terms, up to 42,762 from 28,291 in 2005. Naomi Long’s victory in East Belfast gives Alliance an elected MP at Westminster for the first time. It was also the first time since the 1960s that Protestant working-class discontent has been expressed by a political move to the left of the established party. Loyalist paramilitaries mobilised their members and supporters to vote for her. Additionally, in South Belfast Anna Lo more than doubled her vote. Hong-Kong-born Lo is the first politician born in East Asia elected to any legislative body in the United Kingdom – the Assembly and is insinuating herself into position to take the seat when the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell retires.
The most ignored advance was that of veteran socialist Eamonn McCann. Standing in Foyle (Derry City) for the People before Profit Alliance, McCann received the best vote for any radical socialist candidate anywhere in the United Kingdom. His nearly 3,000 votes were an almost doubling of his vote five years ago. It reflected years of campaigning on local issues. In next year’s election, McCann has an outside chance of becoming the first socialist to win an Assembly seat.