Belfast Telegraph

NI Election: It remains to be seen if Sinn Fein will suspend its longer game for a working relationship with the DUP

By John Downing

This is big stuff. Unionist parties have lost their absolute majority in a Northern Ireland parliament for the first time since the state's creation in 1921.

Sinn Fein came within 1,168 votes of becoming the most popular party for the first time ever. In practice, nationalists and unionists are neck and neck and, unsurprisingly, Gerry Adams & co are ramping up talk about border polls as A Nation Once Again plays in the background.

But before we all get ahead of ourselves here, let's note that some things are still the same. Or, things may have been made worse by an unwanted and bitterly-divisive election to Stormont.

The "changed political landscape" is even more polarised than before. It all raises more doubt about whether Sinn Fein and the DUP can relearn how to work together.

The unionist community is spooked, and that is not a helpful sentiment in any community. Much now depends on how Sinn Fein conducts itself.

Arlene Foster is now fighting for her political life.

There were some ritual expressions of confidence by some of her party heavy-hitters in the immediate aftermath of the calamitous results.

But DUP MP Gavin Robinson said that the party was not ruling out an ultimatum from Sinn Fein for Foster to step aside temporarily. Mr Robinson said it must be her decision, but the silence from the rest of the party in the ensuing hours was significant.

Mrs Foster's standing aside remains a Sinn Fein pre-condition to entering power-sharing talks.

She had rightly predicted a "brutal election" - but she could not have predicted such a brutal outcome for someone who was rated as "electoral gold dust" a year ago.

It is hard to see her surviving the coming storms and remarkable to ponder how steeply she has fallen in just 15 months.

But the bigger picture is that the bulk of power has been handed to the two parties who more recently could not operate together.

It does not bode well.

More than ever before, a real working relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein is urgently required. Will Sinn Fein address its community's immediate need for effective government? Or will it risk continuing its longer game?

  • John Downing is a political commentator and journalist for the Irish Independent

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