Belfast Telegraph

Now the totting up is finally finished, what does it all mean for the parties?

By Liam Clarke

The biggest winner in these elections is undoubtedly Sinn Fein.

The republican party has now strength in depth across the whole island.

The most striking statistic is that Sinn Fein achieved its highest ever vote since the pre-partition 1918 Westminster election, when it won the majority of seats in Ireland and declared independence. That was in the wake of the 1916 Rising.

Sinn Fein's success was followed, in fairly short order, by revolution, partition, the creation of the state of Northern Ireland and civil war in the Republic.

The old Sinn Fein party splintered and split in the wake of its successes and is only starting to recover its support in recent years.

It will want to keep things on an even keel this time. The party now has the largest popular mandate in Northern Ireland and is the largest party in Ireland, taking north and south together. It is also the largest party in Belfast, Londonderry, Dublin and Cork.

That makes it very unlikely that it will pull out of government in Stormont or cause major stresses on the peace process. That would be bad for business and would risk alienating the new voters.

Just how soft its new northern support is was shown by the fact that a chunk of its European surplus transferred to Alliance and a handful went to unionists.

Its nationalist rival, the SDLP, recorded its lowest ever European vote and continued to decline in the council elections this year.

However, Sinn Fein knows that the smaller nationalist party would be the first to benefit if republicans were seen to be unreliable partners in government.

That would also impact on their support in the south where Fianna Fail and Labour would be quick to capitalise on any evidence that Sinn Fein was incapable of functioning in the Stormont coalition.

Barring Sinn Fein slip-ups, which would be a windfall, the SDLP faces a difficult future and its leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell has an unenviable job which he may not keep past next year's Westminster elections.

Although a pro-life party, it wasn't helped by strong advice from the Catholic hierarchy that voters should bear a party's position on abortion in mind when voting.

Next year the SDLP faces the threat of a unionist unity candidate to unseat Dr McDonnell in South Belfast.

It also has Sinn Fein nipping at the heels of its MP Mark Durkan in Foyle, flushed with its success in the Derry and Strabane super council elections.

On the unionist side, everyone is claiming a victory.

After a quarter century of declining votes, the UUP succeeded in increasing its council vote, albeit by just under 1%, and its share of seats by 2%.

In Europe, its veteran MEP, Jim Nicholson, was returned again but on the lowest European vote the party has ever recorded. This is something to be built on.

The DUP is confirmed as the largest unionist party and, although it has less voters than Sinn Fein, it is still the largest party in Northern Ireland in terms of council seats, MPs and MLAs.

Its mission will now be to try to reach deals with smaller parties in advance of the next Westminster election.

The TUV is now on the map as a party, no longer just an extension of its leader Jim Allister. It can hope to grow its council presence.

Alliance, which recorded its largest ever European vote and suffered only a marginal decline in the councils, has survived the most difficult period in its history when it came under physical attack and has renewed its councillor base with younger recruits.

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