Belfast Telegraph

How Sinn Fein got bitten by its own crocodile moment... bomber Kelly on the campaign trail

By Lindy McDowell

In the immediate aftermath of the election a pic was doing the rounds on social media with the caption to the effect that "this was unionism's 'crocodile' moment".

It was a photograph of the Shankill bomber Sean Kelly.

As a story in this newspaper shockingly revealed, in the run-up to polling day, child-killer Kelly had been out and about campaigning for Sinn Fein in north Belfast.

I use the word "shockingly" because that is precisely how that story was and is viewed in unionist areas.

How could he? More to the point, how could it?

How could a party - Sinn Fein - that talks grandly about equality and respect for all not rush to distance itself from this?

It would be simplistic, of course, to attribute the surge in the unionist vote entirely to that one story, that one picture.

But there is certainly a lot of truth in the claim that it was something of a 'crocodile' moment - a reference there to the word Arlene Foster dropped during the Assembly election campaign in relation to the debate about whether there should be an Irish Language Act.

That word was so cleverly turned by her Sinn Fein foes to bite back at Foster.

In some ways, though, that same original 'crocodile' moment was also a bit of a crocodile moment in this most recent campaign.

Sinn Fein's impressively snappy campaigning against the DUP in that last Assembly election (we really are overdoing the elections aren't we?) also reverberated in the Westminster poll.

Although unionists retained the majority in the Assembly, there was bold talk immediately post-election from their Shinner opposition that - yaaaay!!! - this was it.

The tide had turned. Unionism was on the back-burner and republicanism was surging. Rampant, no less. Gerry Adams, in particular, was a mite, what you could call, triumphalist.

Cue then, almost inevitably, a unionist resurgence.

The Westminster election just past (it's getting hard to keep count) was possibly the most blatant example we've had to date of that old cliche - the sectarian headcount.

The once great parties of the centre - the SDLP and UUP - were wiped out (in this last election, it should be stressed. Not necessarily entirely).

The UUP, with its new leader Robin Swann, was always going to be up against it in those seats where it was vying for preference against the DUP.

The UUP has for some time been acutely aware it is no longer unionism's brand leader.

A more charismatic party leader - Doug Beattie? - might well have made a difference. Who knows?

But, call it the siege mentality if you will, many unionist voters listening to Adams gloating post-Assembly election that their day might be gone, decided to come out in force to send a single, simple message.

Actually, no.

We haven't gone away, you know.

It is sad, for all of us on all sides of this community, that for the time being anyway the nuances of unionism and nationalism and, indeed, others, have been overridden by the monoliths of the two extremes.

Sinn Fein has done very well indeed - at the expense of the SDLP.

But, fascinatingly, Foster and the DUP, who in many ways went into this election on the back foot, have emerged the real winners of #GE2017, eclipsing even the resurgent Labour vote in terms of bang for ballot box buck.

The DUP, the fifth party (in terms of Westminster size) is now kingmaker (or queen maker).

Mike Nesbitt tried and failed to re-energise unionism's infamous sleeping voter during the Assembly election.

The real wake-up call for the slumbering unionist seems to have been the Assembly election result - and response - that followed.

And, yes, the nightmare face of a notorious killer who, ironically, has helped deliver the DUP's dream result.

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