Belfast Telegraph

Last Friday was the DUP's day and it is now shaping up to be DUP's decade too

DUP’s Mervyn Storey is congratulated at Ballymena count
DUP’s Mervyn Storey is congratulated at Ballymena count
Mike Nesbitt

By Noel McAdam

Unionists now have 56 of the 108 seats in the Assembly - yet far from providing reassurance, the result is likely to intensify inter-party rivalry in Stormont.

As Jim Allister pointed out, that result should ensure a unionist majority on the business committee, which decides and prioritises Assembly schedules.

However, if the Ulster Unionists decide to go into formal opposition, the tensions will be between unionists rather than with nationalists.

For the UUP, the pathway back into government was already difficult enough to negotiate.

It had pulled out its sole Executive minister Danny Kennedy last summer in protest over IRA involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan in the Short Strand.

And the fact is that last Friday was not just the DUP's day, it is shaping up to be their decade.

Less than six months after Peter Robinson stood down as leader, the party's entire campaign was built around his successor, Arlene Foster - and more than paid off.

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The party secured 202,567 first preference votes - up from 198,436 votes in 2011, although its 29.2% share of the vote is down by 0.7%.

The extent of the victory not only secures Mrs Foster position as First Minister, but gives the party first, third, and sixth choices when the share-out of ministries finally takes place in about a fortnight.

It works out like this because Stormont's 12 departments will be going down to nine. The decision to suggest they just might opt for the Education Ministry, which Sinn Fein has been in charge of for years, did the party no harm in maximising its votes.

Whether they will find themselves able to hand over the purse-strings of government at the Department of Finance is another matter.

In contrast, Mike Nesbitt's Ulster Unionist Party secured 87,302 first preferences from the electorate (12.6%) and is fourth in line to pick a portfolio.

Given its dominance, the DUP can afford to be generous in victory. But there is not much reason to expect it will be.

The track record would point to the opposite.

Mr Nesbitt (below) is looking long-term, to the next election in 2021, after admitting he is only halfway towards his targets.

The performance of the Rev Lesley Carroll in North Belfast, in particular, was very disappointing. In unionism, the DUP is now in pole position across Belfast.

Regaining the seats the UUP lost through resignations is not a failure, but it is not a success, and in politics there are not many words for in-between.

"Not great but not bad," was Mr Nesbitt's own assessment.

After gaining two MPs from zero in last year's general election, thanks to a DUP pact, it had reason to expect it would do better than 16.

He had sent himself a letter, opened in the full glare of TV on Saturday, showing he thought he would have 18 or 19 seats by now.

And had the UUP been that close to 20 seats, the party would have been cock-a-hoop.

Within days of the last Assembly dissolving, the DUP had began warning that even a small percentage swing - two votes in a hundred - could result in Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister. But it was really a lot less to do with the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister than with dissuading unionists from coming out for other unionist parties. "Vote Mike (or Jim) - and get Marty" was the message.

So had the UUP been enjoying a resurgence or was its success in the general election last year - when Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan were returned, the latter taking the scalp of DUP veteran Rev William McCrea - down to the borrowed support from the DUP in their election pact?

Mr Allister also will be crestfallen at the failure to achieve a second Traditional Voice MLA.

And as a liberal, will Claire Sugden be the Assembly's new John McCallister?

Belfast Telegraph


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