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For once I agree with Gerry Adams, the DUP radicalised a younger vote for Sinn Fein

By Mairia Cahill

Benjamin Disraeli could have written the script for the larger parties in the election when he said: "Damn your principles. Stick to your party." For this was an election campaign that should have been a gift for would-be opposition parties - and they flunked it.

There are many reasons for that, and all of them will be unpicked over the next few days. But on a basic level, with a few exceptions, they failed to motivate their vote, or resonate with voters, despite a colossal and shambolic fall-out over RHI, which should have induced apathy for the larger two parties.

Instead, core voters flocked to the polls to vote in their old faithful.

Sinn Fein romped home in this election and the DUP held their own, but it was also a particularly good election for the socially liberal Alliance and Green parties, which increased their vote significantly.

With turnout at its highest since 1998, was it a youthful vote which allowed both larger parties to reclaim their dominance? Or an older, sleeping electorate reawakened?

Actually, it was both. First-time votes benefited the more socially liberal parties, particularly Alliance in places like Strangford, where younger candidate Kellie Armstrong increased her vote from 3,499 to 5,813. But they also materialised for Sinn Fein.

Last time around, People Before Profit was credited for harnessing a youthful vote in West Belfast, but yesterday, Sinn Fein took their votes back in style, returning all four candidates in a reduced constituency (although Gerry Carroll did manage to cling on to the fifth seat).

The Greens also pulled in first-time voters and, while that may not translate into seats, it's safe to say that they will be extremely happy with their performance.

In Foyle, Sinn Fein are up 8.2 percentage points, taking 3.2 away from the SDLP. This should be a wake-up call that the SDLP needs to re-energise its base and develop a cohesive strategy for the period ahead.

Arlene Foster made some colossal mistakes in the campaign and the DUP must share some of the responsibility for the Sinn Fein result. They aroused a previously disenfranchised sleeping republican vote with their abrupt manner, their apparent disregard for parity of esteem and their ridiculous stance on the Irish language issue.

Those "crocodiles" can remember a time when they resided in a unionist-dominated state and came out in their droves to stick an electoral two fingers up to the DUP and, by God, they snapped back.

As Gerry Adams stated yesterday - and it's a rare occasion that I agree with him - the DUP "radicalised a younger vote for Sinn Fein". Take note, DUP.

It's worrying because, if Adams is right, they've more than enough energy, if they can sustain it, to drive their agenda forward, which will not be good news for growth for anyone else within the nationalist community until the next cycle of apathy comes around.

Young people are more likely to ditch tribal lines and vote for more progressive policies, but something about Sinn Fein resonated this time.

However, older voters also made an effort to go to the polls and should not be overlooked. Many of them hadn't voted in years since the Good Friday Agreement.

A friend told me of an 87-year-old relative, who is terminally ill, who asked him to drive her to the polling station. She voted DUP and did not wish to transfer to anyone else. My own grandmother, who is in hospital, was very annoyed about losing her vote.

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long also recognised that some of their new votes came from older heads: "Some had never voted before, or had not voted in a very long time, and I think that has benefited Alliance without a doubt."

A point of note in this election is that younger, fresh-faced MLAs have been returned to the chamber, some at the expense of older politicians, and this new swathe of talent will be useful in harnessing younger voters as they come through the election cycle.

It will be interesting to see if any of the parties put forward their younger MLAs when it comes to the difficult negotiations ahead, or if they plump for their more experienced politicians.

As Joseph Chamberlain once said: "In politics, there is no use looking beyond the next fortnight."

Let's wait and see.

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