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Arlene Foster's constant baiting made it very easy for the crocodile of republicanism to bite back

By Tom Kelly

The votes have been cast and counted and there's certainly clarity as to where Northern Ireland is heading - nowhere soon.

There are now more red lines between Sinn Fein and the DUP than in a Donald Trump speech.

But what do these elections tell us?

Well, for one thing, Northern Ireland political opinion has never been more polarised. This is like getting a Monopoly board with a 'Go to jail' square in every corner.

Every time Arlene Foster hit the TV screens support for Sinn Fein among nationalists just soared. Like Paisley in his heyday for the IRA, Arlene was the best canvasser Sinn Fein never had.

In her desperation to frighten middle-ground unionists into remaining in the DUP fold, she just kept repeating the mantra of beware Gerry Adams, Gerry Adams and Gerry Adams.

And, of course, Adams, to most unionists is the dinner guest from Hell. As for the Sinn Fein leadership, they were happy to keep it personal to the First Minister and, in doing so, gave the nationalist community something to focus on: the chance to humiliate Foster. It has to be said, the First Minister made that strategy very easy.

The bold decision by the Ulster Unionist leader to announce his transfer of second preferences to the SDLP - and the latter's belated response to it - made both look like two parts of the Alliance Party chatting to each other. At least that's how voters would have seen it.

In the middle of the SDLP and the UUP you had the real deal: the Alliance Party invigorated, with a new, feisty leader and an array of younger and more politically attractive candidates. In the centre-ground of a polarised campaign, the chattering classes had a champion in Naomi Long. She was a plain-speaking, no-nonsense 'thran' Ulster woman, and she had proven that she possessed special DUP dragon-slaying powers, having once seen off the former DUP leader Peter Robinson. Long had believability and credibility on her side against a less-seasoned, but competent SDLP leader and an Ulster Unionist leader who had the impossible task of herding feral cats at the crossroads.

Alliance, along with Sinn Fein, can declare this to be a good election. Like all parties in this election, it played safe in terms of candidates, but for the first time in a long, long time it made an impact elsewhere than east of the Bann.

The middle ground of Northern Ireland politics garnered 36% of all first-preference votes, but because of the differences between the various parties there is no vote management strategy for transfers. This means their various supporters lack the discipline of the two main blocs of Sinn Fein and the DUP, but between the UUP, SDLP and Alliance, they command over 270,000 votes, which dwarfs either of the two main parties. Add in the Greens and People Before Profit and that figure exceeds 300,000. A majority, yes, but as cohesive as the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

And therein is the rub for those in the centre-ground of NI politics, who are looking for something new. That's the theory. In practice the rainbow coalition wouldn't work because we have a political system that can't accommodate it.

Part of the problem is that half the UUP is not centre-ground at all. There is a certain irony in that Danny Kennedy, who publicly rejected his leader's call to dovetail with the SDLP on transfers because he thought he needed to appeal to more unionists, ended up losing out to Sinn Fein after SDLP transfers took Conor Murphy home.

People Before Profit was another alternative for voters looking to shake up tribal politics in Northern Ireland, but it, too, appears to have been almost strangled after birth by a resurgent Sinn Fein and its own political ambivalence to Brexit in constituencies that voted Remain during the EU referendum.

But, like its southern counterparts, PBP is very personality-dependent.

The sad, but unpalatable fact, is that Northern Ireland elections are too driven by tribal and insular insecurities to break free for the centre-ground. And this election seems to depressingly prove the point.

Play the tin whistle or beat the drum and you still seem to find enough green or orange pied pipers to follow.

The year 2017 has only reinforced our prejudices and, unfortunately, seems to point to a prolonged period of direct rule, followed by yet another election some time in 2018.

Welcome to progress by paralysis.

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