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Arlene Foster emboldened by surge in support as scaremongering over First Minister proves masterstroke at polls

By Noel McAdam

Published 07/05/2016

Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson

Arlene Foster can take some time this weekend to savour the personal triumph this election represents, even if all the votes aren't counted yet. Just six months after taking over from Peter Robinson she has secured the DUP's position as the prime force in unionism, and positioned the party pretty adroitly for two weeks of hard bargaining on her much-vaunted 'five point plan'.

Those priorities - most involving the necessity for more resources - are: health, education, infrastructure, 'more and better jobs' as well as keeping household taxes low. "We will now be working on the Programme for Government (PfG) to make sure that we can reflect those," she told the Belfast Telegraph last night. The whole impetus of the next PfG (designed to stretch until 2021) is supposed to be on 'outputs' and the DUP is well-placed now to import many of its ideas into the detail.

Some critics, including many in the media, dubbed the DUP election strategy 'Project Fear' - though it certainly paid off.

There was never any real doubt that Mrs Foster would remain as First Minister, but the surge in DUP support appears to exceed even the party's own expectations.

Insiders had argued the party had peaked at 38 seats last time round, and believed some shrinkage was inevitable. But instead, their percentage vote appears to have held up overall and even improved in some areas.

While he may not have been much mentioned during their campaign, as UUP leader Mike Nesbitt pointed out, Peter Robinson's fingerprints are all over the party's micro-management of voter preferences across several constituencies. He taught his people well.

The party was first to hit the ground running within days of the Assembly dissolving with warnings that even a small percentage swing - two votes in a hundred - could result in Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister.

It was less about the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister, realistically always too high a hurdle for Sinn Fein to jump in one election, and much more to do with dissuading people from supporting main rivals Nesbitt and Jim Allister.

Yesterday's results make it much more likely the apparent 'resurgence' of the UUP in the General Election last year - with two MPs, Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan, returned, the latter at the expense of Rev William McCrea - owed more to the DUP pact than any genuine comeback for Nesbitt and co.

But there was real disappointment, too, for Mr Allister who had appeared confident he would not be returning to the next Assembly as a one-man-band again.

If it was a good day for the DUP, however, their power-sharing partners Sinn Fein also had many reasons to be cheerful, despite the dents from People Before Profit in West Belfast and Foyle - and although their target of 30 seats, which would allow them automatic ignition of 'petitions of concern' to block measures they oppose, remained elusive.

The results are likely to provoke much soul-searching for the SDLP - leader Colum Eastwood failed to make the impact outside the party he needed - and the UUP.

Along with Alliance, the two smaller parties will be entitled to take part in the fortnight of policy negotiations but may decide the best path towards a genuine resurgence in the future lies in going into opposition.

For the SDLP in particular, which could fall short of the seats threshold necessary to claim a Ministry in the Executive - partly because the number of departments and ministries is also falling from 13 to nine - opposition may offer the most viable direction.

Belfast Telegraph

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