Belfast Telegraph

Carroll's rise embarrasses SDLP as DUP tightens grip on unionism

People Before Profit man's triumph in spite of scarce resources underlines demise of nationalists but various challenges to dominance of Foster's party rejected by voters

By Suzanne Breen

There's a hunger in urban nationalist areas for an alternative to Sinn Fein, but it's not for the SDLP.

The stunning success of People Before Profit candidates in West Belfast and Derry shows that the Sinn Fein machine isn't invincible.

But the SDLP is simply too safe, too comfortable, and too middle-class to capitalise on the discontent. While Colum Eastwood's media performances have been highly impressive, the public has not been convinced.

There has been no bounce for the new leader. That some of the SDLP's most high-profile politicians were last night on the brink of losing their seats spoke volumes about the party's predicament.

Going into the election, it shouldn't have sat on the fence about whether or not to enter the next Executive. It should have bravely and boldly announced that it was heading into opposition.

Gerry Carroll's poll-topping success in West Belfast for People Before Profit was based on a clear, radical left-wing agenda. In its own heartland, Sinn Fein is seen by growing numbers not as the anti-establishment party it likes to portray, but as part of the establishment.

There is strong opposition to welfare cuts, and anger that those who have the least are being hit hardest while corporation tax is about to be reduced.

The same sentiment is prevalent in Derry where an unprecedented 7,500 people voted for two independent candidates, Eamonn McCann and Dr Anne McCloskey.

And in North Belfast, the until now unknown Fiona Ferguson of People Before Profit took almost 1,300 votes on her first electoral outing. The changes in the SDLP that Eastwood has introduced have been more about style than substance. Voters do not know what "progressive nationalism" means.

The SDLP's Claire Hanna performed well in South Belfast but, with other candidates, the party's choice is hugely wrong. It has persisted in running certain male politicians who are not, and never will be, vote-winners. It doesn't matter how intelligent these guys are, the ordinary man in the street doesn't relate to them. Gerry Carroll's success in West Belfast is down to the fact that he doesn't just represent the community, he is part of it.

Sitting in his 'Aontroim' sweater and jeans at the count yesterday, his supporters joked that his wardrobe might put him in breach of the strict dress code at Stormont.

Carroll has also worked flat out at a grassroots level in major and minor ways. In the St James area after a power cut, for instance, he was at doors handing out candles.

Sinn Fein threw everything at West Belfast. It erected gazebos outside polling stations. On election day, its canvassers outnumbered those from other parties 10 to one. Tricolour-bedecked cars toured the area, offering lifts to voters.

That Carroll - without a fraction of these resources - still managed to top the poll with 23% of the vote is impressive. It also shows the inadequacies of the local SDLP who should have been asking serious questions of themselves long ago as their vote dwindled in election after election.

Unlike Sinn Fein, the DUP faces no radical threat within its community. Unionists seem far more content with the political status quo. The PUP has not progressed beyond council level. The TUV totally flopped. Jim Allister's many talents haven't extended to party building.

While the public appreciate that he is a thorn-in-the-side of the Stormont establishment, they don't want to elect other TUV-ers to keep him company. It remains to be seen whether Allister has the heart to continue in the Assembly for the next five years or if he will co-opt a younger member to replace him.

Ukip seems a spent force in Northern Ireland. Its motley collection of candidates just didn't make for a credible political force. Despite the DUP's 'Forward with Arlene' campaign being mocked for its presidential style, it resonated with voters. Foster's popularity with the public presents a huge problem for the UUP.

Alliance ran a poor campaign. It didn't make the gains it predicted, and in South and East Belfast the Greens are a growing presence. David Ford, a man of integrity, will surely hand over the leadership to Naomi Long in a bid to stop that drift.

The winners

Gerry Carroll

People Before Profit

The People Before Profit champion scored an unprecedented victory at the expense of Sinn Fein in its electoral heartland of West Belfast, scoring more than twice the first preference votes of the nearest Sinn Fein candidate. He not only took a seat on the first count but easily topped the poll, with 8,229 first preferences – 3,500 votes clear of SF’s top candidate, Alex Maskey, who got 4,769 votes.

Clare Bailey

The Green Party

The Green Party deputy leader was tantalisingly close to a seat in South Belfast late last night, after a strong showing of 3,251 first preference votes – doubling the party’s Assembly representation along with Steven Agnew in North Down. Born in Clonard on the lower Falls in 1970, before moving to Antrim, she and her sister were among the first pupils to attend Lagan College in 1981.

Jim Wells

DUP

After a year of personal and family trauma, including two separate court cases arising from remarks made at hustings in the run-up to the last, General, election and the grave illness of his wife, Grace, the former DUP Health Minister who was forced to resign could not have been sure of his seat until the first count results came in. He is now set to become father of the House.

Eamonn McCann

People Before Profit

The long-time political activist, also standing for People Before Profit, is facing a major lifestyle issue following his victory in Foyle — how to comply with Assembly rules and wear a tie when it comes to the first formal plenary session. The 73-year old prolific author and journalist has an individual satorial, as well as editorial, style but will be required under present rules to don some neckwear.

Jenny Palmer

Ulster Unionists

Although the Ulster Unionist  candidate had to wait a long time yesterday to be sure of her Lagan Valley seat, she got the revenge she wanted after her former DUP colleague Jonathan Craig was knocked out of the race. She resigned from the DUP after being threatened with an internal disciplinary panel over her appearances at a Stormont committee investigating allegations in a BBC programme.

Declan Kearney

Sinn Fein

For a long time in the backroom of Sinn Fein politics, Kearney succeeded in taking the seat vacated by Assembly speaker Mitchel McLaughlin. Kearney has been to the fore in the party’s ‘outreach’ programme to unionists. He’s argued he felt regret for all the families of victims of the Troubles, but there could be no hierarchy of victims.

And the losers

John McCallister

Independent

“It wasn’t my day,” a disappointed Mr McAllister said. Only a few hours after counting got under way it was apparent the former Ulster Unionist and NI21 figure was not going to be returning to the Assembly. Yet his legacy is already secured. If Ulster Unionists or the SDLP, or both, decide to go into Opposition next term they will owe much to the legislation piloted through last term by Mr McAllister.

Ruth Patterson

Independent

The first count total of just 475 votes for the former DUP firebrand was derisory. With her election agent Jamie Bryson, her campaign had been high profile in media terms but failed to catch fire with the electorate. Although she remains an independent on Belfast City Council, she was sacked by the DUP after attacking its selection of then-special adviser Emma Little Pengelly.

Phil Flanagan

Sinn Fein

The Sinn Fein stalwart, who fell foul of his party’s Assembly speaker Mitchel McLaughlin several times, said last night he was “headed for the dole” after losing his Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat. “Unemployment is never a good prospect for anyone, but politics is not a job for life,“ the father of two added. The party’s repeated selection conventions, which at one point saw him off the ticket, cannot have helped.

Fearghal McKinney

SDLP

The former UTV reporter — who has enjoyed one of the most meteoric rises in local politics, elected to the lofty heights of SDLP deputy leader on the same day Colum Eastwood succeeded Alasdair McDonnell — performed very poorly in South Belfast compared to his running mate, and internal party rival, Carmel Hanna on the first count. Now aged 53, he could face a future reduced to media or PR.

Henry Reilly

TUV

The former Ukip standard-bearer was arguably Jim Allister’s best chance of a second seat in the Stormont Assembly. But he crashed in South Down with just over 2,700 first count votes leaving him too far from the final six. The TUV’s next best chance, Mr Allister’s running mate in North Antrim, Timothy Gaston, also failed to cross the line. TUV leader Allister conceded afterwards: “I am disappointed.”

Billy Hutchinson

PUP

Having already been an Assembly member in the heady days when the late David Ervine seemed poised to take the party to greater things, PUP leader Mr Hutchinson’s return to the fray yesterday turned out to be a bruiser, being eliminated on the eighth count after polling 1,238 first preference votes. His city council colleague John Kyle didn’t fare much better with 1,772 first preferences.

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