Sir Jeffrey Donaldson never uttered the “crocodile” word, but the DUP’s determination to stop a Sinn Fein First Minister dramatically backfired and galvanised the nationalist vote.
From every count centre there came fantastic news for Sinn Fein. It has blown away its rivals, with the SDLP and People Before Profit significantly down.
The DUP’s strident opposition to the prospect of Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister reached a place in the hearts of nationalist voters, and made them intent on making it happen.
And so votes that may not have gone Sinn Fein’s way otherwise were lent to the party to send a message to the DUP.
The symbolism of the party holding the top position — if a new Executive is formed — in a state it wants to abolish is huge.
No constituency tells the story better than West Belfast. Sinn Fein will comfortably bring home its four MLAs.
The SDLP’s Paul Doherty was a strong candidate who is firmly rooted in Turf Lodge and founded a food bank. Yet the party’s vote was down from 9% to 6% in the constituency.
In 2016 People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll topped the poll with 22%. He was on 8% today and will likely take the last seat.
PBP once looked a serious rival to Sinn Fein in working-class nationalist areas, but its star has fallen. With the cost of living crisis, it seemed well positioned to take a seat in Foyle, but it didn’t even come close.
Sinn Fein possibly missed a trick in South Down, where it polled 44%. Had it run another candidate it might have taken three seats. The SDLP was down from 25% to 16% in the constituency and it’s certain to lose a seat.
Sinead Ennis, who was recently embroiled in controversy when historical tweets were revealed, topped the poll with 14,381 votes — a number more akin to a Westminster election win than an Assembly one.
In East Derry the SDLP’s Cara Hunter, who nobody believed was in trouble, is likely fighting for the last seat with the second Sinn Fein candidate.
Hunter’s political plight highlights how much the party is up against it. The most symbolic defeat for it would be Nichola Mallon in North Belfast, who could lose her seat to Alliance’s Nuala McAllister.
Mallon paid the price of focusing more on her Stormont ministry at the expense of maintaining a high profile on the ground.
She tried to make up for lost time during the election campaign, but it may have been too late.
Poll-topping Ardoyne councillor Paul McCusker didn’t seem to be out and about with her as much as would have been anticipated — that certainly cost her votes.
If the SDLP deputy leader falls, it raises all sorts of questions for the party. Who will replace her in the Assembly? Sinead McLaughlin is also under pressure in Foyle, leaving the possibility that it may have no female MLAs.
With Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna at Westminster, the SDLP would be painfully short of strong, articulate voices in Stormont.
It won big in South Belfast in the 2019 general election, but this result must raise internal concerns about retaining that seat.
Conor Houston in Strangford was the party’s best hope of a win, yet it didn’t happen. The SDLP did nothing wrong during a campaign it waged energetically, and Eastwood won both TV leaders’ debates.
But the party simply couldn’t compete with the tug on the heartstrings of nationalist voters that a nationalist holding Stormont’s top job meant.
The DUP is set to lose the First Minister position. The party has taken a big hit from TUV, although it remains to be seen how many seats it will lose.
For the Ulster Unionists, it wasn’t a great day. Doug Beattie’s liberal, inclusive unionism should best appeal in urban areas, yet its two hopefuls in Belfast — Stephen McCarthy in the south of the city and Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston — weren’t competitive.
In both constituencies the party’s vote fell — significantly in South Belfast. Major questions will likely now be posed to Beattie internally about the party’s strategy.
The UUP has not won back moderate unionist voters from Alliance. If its liberal unionism doesn’t appeal in Belfast, then it’s going to be difficult everywhere.
TUV has performed remarkably well but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see if Jim Allister is returned with company.
Alliance continues its remarkable rise under Naomi Long’s leadership. It’s now firmly established as the third party in Northern Ireland and has monopolised the middle ground with the Green vote on the slide.
It was a good day for Long, but this was first and foremost Michelle O’Neill’s election. She’ll surely be raising a glass to Sir Jeffrey for helping her make Sinn Fein Stormont’s largest party.