Belfast Telegraph

SF banked on an Assembly poll in October - DUP's electoral comeback has changed all that

Republican response to Stormont elections in March only re-energised unionist voters

Arlene Foster and Theresa May
Arlene Foster and Theresa May
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Harold Wilson famously said that a week was a long time in politics, so on that basis the past six months has been an eternity. Politically, these six months have been a roller coaster, with all its thrills and spills. Martin McGuinness set the ball rolling by using the nuclear option of resigning from the Office of Deputy First Minister, which scuttled the Executive and the Assembly and threw politics into a deep and threatening crisis.

This led to an unscheduled and unnecessary election that saw Sinn Fein triumph and threaten the DUP seat tally in the Assembly.

It was so close that a win by the SDLP's long-standing candidate Joe Boyle in Strangford would have deprived the DUP of another seat and made it equal with Sinn Fein in the Assembly.

For the DUP, and in particular Arlene Foster, it was a frightening near-defeat that sent them into a tailspin. The DUP was shocked, humiliated and horrified at the substantial surge in the nationalist/republican vote.

It affected not to understand that its own leader had whipped up widespread nationalist anger by her belittling and disrespectful language towards that community.

All of this self-inflicted injury was compounded by the 2016 EU referendum result in favour of Brexit, which for nationalists was a retrogressive step and reignited the border as a live issue.

This unexpected outcome set alarm bells ringing - not just within the DUP, but also within the unionist community at large, who were surprised and disturbed at Sinn Fein's strong support.

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The gleeful and triumphalist reaction of Sinn Fein to its outstanding electoral success did little to calm unionist fears. In particular, the demand for a border poll made unionism very nervous indeed.

The unstated, but obvious, preference by Sinn Fein for the continuing deadlock over the formation of a new Executive and its strategic aim for a new Assembly election in October 2017 to finish off the DUP majority at Stormont took priority, preventing any political agreement taking place.

But to top the crisis that had degenerated into a grim paralysis, the unexpected, unscheduled and unnecessary general election called by Theresa May caused a further political earthquake here by the joint triumph of the DUP and Sinn Fein and the obliteration of the UUP and SDLP from the Westminster Parliament.

The surprising revival of the DUP's electoral fortunes has now changed the whole dynamic of the political situation.

Winning 10 seats and increasing its vote from 184,000 in 2015 to 292,000 in 2017 was an enormous comeback that could not be ignored by anyone.

This tsunami of unionist votes was that community's clear and unequivocal answer to Sinn Fein's call for a border poll, and its politically triumphalist tone.

Sir Isaac Newton stated that: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

The same applies to politics.

What seemed to Sinn Fein to be a huge victory in March can be seen as a pyrrhic one today. The Sinn Fein victory was the real stimulus for the sensational DUP comeback on June 8 and its winning exclusive unionist representation at Westminster.

But to crown its electoral victory, it now is at the very centre of power, being able to make and unmake the Prime Minister.

Mrs Foster could never have dreamt that she could have such an embarrassment of political riches at her disposal.

So much, then, for Sinn Fein's ridiculous description of Westminster as being a political irrelevance. So much for its ludicrous policy of abstentionism, which sees it failing to help old friend Jeremy Corbyn and, through its absence, actively helps the formation of a new Tory Government that will continue with its hard Brexit approach.

Sinn Fein's election slogan - "No to Tories. No to hard Brexit" - sounds hollow now.

One thing that has changed on foot of the election result is the abandonment of Sinn Fein's strategy of bringing about another Assembly election.

Given the recent election results, such a poll will only ensure the reinstatement of the DUP with an increase to 32 seats, an excess in the number of seats required for a petition of concern.

Whether the DUP will now wish to form an Executive is another question.

And it may well be that it will opt for an Assembly election in the autumn to consolidate its position.

The British Government could hardly deny it that request if it wanted it.

The DUP will also happily pocket the economic goodies squeezed out of the Tories and enjoy its unforeseeable moment of power.

Meanwhile, watch out for the honeyed words of courtship flowing from Sinn Fein to a bashful DUP bride and a fudged end to its demand for Mrs Foster to step aside.

How wonderfully things can change in a week or so.

Belfast Telegraph


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