Rise of Left is wake-up call for both Sinn Fein and SDLP
Disillusioned working-class nationalist voters desert the mainstream parties as People Before Profit Alliance pulls off shock victories in West Belfast and Foyle
Coming hot on the heels of the 1916 centenary celebrations, the conditions couldn't have been better for Sinn Fein in the Assembly election. Yet the party's results were unbelievably poor.
It lost more votes than any of the other four main parties in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein's support dropped almost 3%, while the SDLP was down 2%.
In urban working-class areas Sinn Fein is shedding votes at a remarkable rate. The SDLP is losing ground in these places too, but at nowhere near the rate of Sinn Fein. In West Belfast Sinn Fein's vote was down 12%, while the SDLP's was down 6%.
In North Belfast Sinn Fein's vote was down 5%, while the SDLP's was down 2%. Even Martin McGuinness's much trumpeted return to Derry couldn't stop the rot in that city. Sinn Fein's vote was down almost 6%.
The party threw the kitchen sink at Upper Bann with canvassers from both sides of the border out in force. It succeeded in having two candidates elected for the first time and unseated the SDLP's Dolores Kelly. But even here, Sinn Fein's vote fell by over 2%. Sinn Fein strategists will be alarmed at the growing disillusionment with the party in the heartlands where it once was untouchable.
Most evenings in West Belfast People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll met his canvassers at the corner of Riverdale and the Andersonstown Road. Across the road is Connolly House where, 22 years ago scenes of jubilation unfolded after the IRA ceasefire.
There was Champagne, carnations, and a feeling that life for those who had supported Sinn Fein through thick and thin during the conflict was about to dramatically improve. A united Ireland was around the corner, as was social and economic justice.
Those hopes are long dead and buried. Sinn Fein leaders predicted a united Ireland by 2016. Their own deadline has come and gone and they can't explain how or why they failed.
Conor Murphy may not have had the car-crash interview that the SDLP's Gerard Diver had on the Nolan Show, but he was utterly unable to detail any masterplan to achieve a united Ireland. Sinn Fein's pledge that progress is being made on Irish unity sound as bogus as its claim that the 11-plus has been abolished. But the fact that West Belfast and other working-class nationalist areas are still recording the worst deprivation levels in Northern Ireland has hurt Sinn Fein hardest.
While Gerry Adams enjoys private health treatment in the US courtesy of a wealthy benefactor, his former constituents face endless NHS queues. The Sinn Fein top tier is seen as having done nicely from the political gravy train, while their neighbours remain mired in poverty.
Sinn Fein tried to play the patriot card during the election. Adams made a video calling on voters to support his party on May 5, Bobby Sands' 35th anniversary. Never mind that the Sands' family are strongly opposed to Sinn Fein.
But the hunger strike means little to those under 40 anyway. There were ex-IRA prisoners canvassing for Sinn Fein whose sons and daughters were voting People Before Profit.
Given that Sinn Fein will continue in government, implementing welfare cuts at the heart of the political establishment, it's difficult to see how the party will reconnect with the disillusioned who see its Left-wing rhetoric as laughable. The days when SF could run with the fox and hunt with the hounds are over.
The SDLP lost two of its 14 MLAs but it's lucky not to be down to 10. Had Sinn Fein not run four candidates in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Richie McPhillips mightn't have been elected. In West Belfast Alex Attwood held on by the skin of his teeth, and had People Before Profit run two candidates, he would surely have been toast.
The message from the electorate to the SDLP is clear - the party is too wishy-washy. It needs to find its courage and go into Opposition. The likes of Claire Hanna and Daniel McCrossan could join Colum Eastwood in forming a formidable force on Opposition benches. If the SDLP opts for the safety of the Executive, it will continue limping towards the morgue.