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DUP big winner in election that will have had republicans really crying in their beer

Foster the clear leader of unionism, Nesbitt's big talk was just bluster, Sinn Fein's 1916 'bounce' failed to materialise and the SDLP's decline was confirmed, says Nelson McCausland.

Published 12/05/2016

First Minister Arlene Foster (DUP) speaking at the Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2016 at Omagh Leisure Centre
First Minister Arlene Foster (DUP) speaking at the Northern Ireland Assembly Election 2016 at Omagh Leisure Centre
Gerry Adams

That's another election over and I have had a week to reflect on it. Against the expectations and predictions of many pundits, the DUP took 29.2% of first-preference votes, held its 38 seats and emerged once again as the largest political party in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionist Party held its 16 seats with 13.2% of the votes.

Overall, there were more candidates in the field this time for the 108 Assembly seats, with 276 in 2016 as against 218 at the previous election. There was certainly plenty of choice for the voters - and no excuse for anyone not voting.

For example, in North Belfast there were 11 candidates in 2011, and this time there were 18. There were three more unionist candidates - with the TUV, PUP and Ukip entering the fray alongside the DUP and UUP.

There were also two minor candidates who polled a handful of votes, as well as the intervention of two new Leftist parties alongside the perennial Workers Party.

A lot of the commentators had swallowed the pre-election propaganda from Mike Nesbitt about an Ulster Unionist "resurgence" but it didn't materialise, and across the four Belfast constituencies there are now eight DUP MLAs and only one UUP.

The critics have been confounded and the DUP, led by Arlene Foster (above), is now firmly established as the voice of unionism in the greater Belfast area, with not a single UUP MLA in either North Belfast or South Belfast.

This was a poor election for both the TUV and Ukip. Jim Allister polled well in his North Antrim heartland, but elsewhere his candidates failed to make an impact and he returns to the Assembly on his own.

Meanwhile Ukip - in spite of being a UK-wide party - was unable to gain even one seat in the Assembly.

There was more fragmentation on the Left, with two new parties - the Northern Ireland Labour Representation Committee and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative - joining the Workers Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit, which is a front for the Socialist Workers Party.

People Before Profit broke through in West Belfast where Gerry Carroll took a massive 22.9% of the first-preference votes, and Foyle where the veteran Eamonn McCann took 10.5%. But they made little impact elsewhere.

This suggests that in urban constituencies with large republican heartlands, communities which Sinn Fein has dominated for decades, there is a growing discontent and some people are willing to express that discontent at the ballot box.

For years they have been fed a diet of discontent and grievance by Sinn Fein. That worked for Sinn Fein when it was a party of protest and it could blame "the Brits" for all these grievances, but now it is a party of government and the discontent is being directed at it. In the case of West Belfast, some of the protest vote for People Before Profit may also have been related to the way in which both Sinn Fein and the SDLP mishandled big local issues such as Casement Park and the Visteon site.

Gerry Adams (below) attempted to explain it all away as only "a little fragmentation on the edges", but he wasn't fooling anyone.

In North Belfast, with republican strongholds such as Ardoyne, there was a similar drop in support for Sinn Fein, whose first-preference vote fell by 5.3% from 31.9% to 26.6%.

Overall, Sinn Fein dropped from 29 seats to 28 and saw its first-preference vote share drop by 2.9% - a greater decrease than any other major party.

It was also a poor election for the SDLP, which dropped from 14 seats to 12.

The Assembly election came just weeks after the centenary celebrations for the 1916 rebellion and it should have been a high point for Sinn Fein. But that was not how it worked out.

That will give them food for thought in the Felons' Club.

Nelson McCausland is DUP MLA for North Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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