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Can our two leading ladies now work together? The drama has only just begun

By Suzanne Breen

The spectacular success story of the last Assembly election was that of one woman and her party. The same was true again yesterday, except it was Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Fein who were crowned the undisputed champions in the Stormont poll this time.

O'Neill arrived at the Belfast count to a movie-style reception, surrounded by camera crews, photographers and cock-a-hoop supporters.

While it wasn't the Armageddon for Arlene Foster that some predicted, there was hardly cause for celebration either.

The DUP held onto its position as Northern Ireland's biggest party by the skin of its political teeth. That it secured 225,413 votes in the face of the 'cash for ash' scandal was in some ways impressive.

But at just 1,168 votes behind, Sinn Fein came so close to overtaking the DUP that unionists will be seriously spooked. In the space of just 10 months, the lead of Mrs Foster's party over Sinn Fein was reduced from 5.2% to just 0.2%.

She has only herself to blame. By talking of 'crocodiles' and the like in language that belongs to the last century, she turned herself into a hate figure and energised many nationalists who had become disillusioned with Sinn Fein and politics generally.

Last night, it looked unlikely that the DUP would secure the magic 30 Assembly seats needed to lodge a petition of concern. While there is as yet no threat to Mrs Foster's position, confidence in her within the party has been seriously undermined.

The voters who came out for the DUP on Thursday did so despite her leadership, not because of it. Many canvassers reported how voters had told them in no uncertain terms that they were appalled by her "arrogance".

Candidates had to stress that it was a vote for them personally, not a vote for Arlene, for which they were asking. Many voted DUP not out of any great love for the leadership but because they saw no plausible alternative.

The weakening of the DUP hasn't been accompanied by a strengthening of any other unionist party. The UUP is leaderless and in chaos. It's almost impossible to see them becoming competitive with the DUP again.

For all his undoubted ability, Jim Allister hasn't been able to transform the TUV into a credible party. The conditions couldn't have been more favourable for him in this election yet even in his North Antrim stronghold, his party's share of the vote fell.

The Progressive Unionist Party failed to make any impact and its future seems restricted to council seats. The election makes it clear that the DUP is the only show in town for unionists and there will be immense soul-searching in coming weeks and months.

A unionist majority in the Assembly last night looked unlikely. In Belfast, unionists hold just six out of 20 Stormont seats.

Several unionists last night complained that Sinn Fein had been ultra-organised during the election, laying on buses to bring voters to polling stations. They should grow up.

Rather than moaning about such occurrences, they'd be better doing the same themselves in order to maximise their vote.

Rarely has there been a resignation as dignified and statesmanlike as Mike Nesbitt's. His voice quivering with emotion, he oozed grace and elegance to the very end.

He could teach Mrs Foster a lesson or two in terms of taking responsibility for his actions and not blaming others.

His problem from the very start has been that most unionists don't see him as one of themselves.

"You just can't imagine Mike at a Twelfth parade or having one of his kids playing in an accordion band," a DUP candidate told me yesterday. "He just doesn't get our community."

Before the Assembly election, UUP sources were predicting that Danny Kennedy would be the next party leader. The Belfast Telegraph was told that a meeting was held last week at an Orange hall at which it was agreed that if the UUP secured less than 13 seats, Mr Nesbitt would be told to stand down.

With Mr Kennedy's defeat, Steve Aiken is the only name circulating as a replacement but he is seen as too liberal and too inexperienced by many.

Whoever takes over, there is no chance that they will be continuing Mr Nesbitt's bromance with Colum Eastwood. The idea of a UUP-SDLP administration has been exposed as pie in the sky.

Mr Eastwood didn't put a foot wrong in the Assembly campaign and completely outperformed Michelle O'Neill in both the UTV and BBC leaders' debates. And yet it mattered little as nationalists voted en masse for Sinn Fein.

The SDLP's problem is that it just doesn't have a credible story to tell nationalists. It is also tarred with the loser tag and that's very difficult to shake.

Yet it was far from all gloom and doom for the party.

Nichola Mallon's vote was impressive, Pat Catney's win was the shock of the election, and Dolores Kelly's comeback was miraculous in a tough constituency where Sinn Fein looked a racing certainty to take two seats.

But the SDLP also has reasons to worry. Sinn Fein edged ahead of its rival in both South Down and in Foyle. History suggests that once the Shinners are in front, they're virtually unstoppable. They will now be making a concerted effort to snatch Margaret Ritchie's and Mark Durkan's Westminster seats.

The SDLP also need to watch out for Alliance, which now strongly appeals to their voters. Under Naomi Long, the party pulled off its best election result in decades.

Alliance will be most pleased with its performance West of the Bann where a raft of new candidates doubled or trebled its previous vote.

People Before Profit, by contrast, had an underwhelming election, losing Eamonn McCann in Foyle and coming nowhere near a second seat in West Belfast where its vote fell by 8%. The party's young, enthusiastic members still talked up its performance yesterday.

While PBP has proved that it's not a flash-in-the-pan, Sinn Fein will certainly be breathing a sigh of relief that it has, for now, neutered the party. There can be no detracting from the fact that yesterday was Michelle O'Neill's day.

But the challenge for Sinn Fein is how to reconcile its vote with reaching a deal with the DUP. Sinn Fein's election success was based on a hardening of opinion among nationalists who don't want a return to the rollover republicanism they have seen at Stormont.

But are the red lines red hot for Sinn Fein or will they start cooling down now the election is over?

That's what will be most fascinating in the weeks and months that lie ahead of this intriguing election.

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