Brand Arlene proves to be a hit with all strands of unionism
Published 09/05/2016 | 02:30
'Arlene's day of victory'. The 'Belfast Telegraph' front page headline on Saturday aptly summed up the results of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections. This was the first electoral test for Arlene Foster after succeeding Peter Robinson as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader. In an otherwise reassuringly dull election for the North, it was always going to be fascinating to see how her new brand of leadership would fare at the polls.
The result has been a resounding success for Foster. Whereas in the Republic the General Election was frustratingly inconclusive, no one can doubt that the DUP leader has received an emphatic backing from the unionist electorate.
The DUP's message in this election was simple, consistent and effective. Posters said: 'Keep Arlene Foster as First Minister - vote for her DUP team.'
The message played to unionist fears that former IRA commander Martin McGuinness could become First Minister. It was a very remote possibility, but clearly galvanised the vote.
The party's campaign was also centred on Foster's personality. It is inconceivable that the DUP would have run with a poster saying: 'Keep Peter Robinson as First Minister'. The party strategists staked everything on Brand Arlene - and the gamble paid off.
The key to Foster's success is that she can appeal to a broad spectrum of unionism - voters of varying hues can see qualities in her that appeal to them. She is seen as a strong leader who can defend the Union and work with Sinn Féin for the greater good. For younger, more progressive voters she can be seen as a shining example of an intelligent woman who has risen to the top of a once exclusively male bastion. For more conservative voters, she is seen as a religious woman with integrity.
It was also important that the party was seen to be united behind her. Her predecessor Peter Robinson was an effective leader with many positive attributes, but there were always underlying tensions with the religious right and Paisleyite factions of the party.
Only six months after being elected as leader, she has effectively stopped the resurgence of the Ulster Unionist Party dead in its tracks. The DUP has retained its 38 seats, while Sinn Féin has slipped from 29 to 28.
Sinn Féin's campaign stood in stark contrast to the DUP's. Once it was the republicans who were seen as the masters of the political game - their articulate spokespeople a sharp contrast to the often bumbling, media-unfriendly unionists.
This time Sinn Féin was bedevilled by Gerry Adams's controversial use of the N-word on Twitter. The party's handling of this incident betrayed a lack of nous - the story wasn't killed off early and Adams's press conference apology was too little too late.
This election has to be seen as a disappointment for Sinn Féin. The party had been aiming for 30 seats - the minimum number of seats needed for a party to be able to trigger a 'Petition of Concern', a mechanism whereby any legislation can effectively be frustrated. Sinn Féin also allowed People Before Profit to outflank it on the left and gain two seats - including Gerry Carroll topping the poll in the once impregnable republican constituency of West Belfast.
In the other three Belfast constituencies, it is interesting to note that the DUP candidates who got the most votes were all women: Joanne Bunting, Emma Little Pengelly and Paula Bradley.
Ms Bunting and Ms Pengelly appealed to aspirational, middle-class voters in the suburbs of East and South Belfast. They were always slickly dressed in strong colours. They wouldn't have been out of place on the US election trail - and their posters stood in stark contrast to other, more ramshackle efforts. The DUP's image as a party of balding old men in ill-fitting suits has surely been banished. Foster, aged just 45, can now return to Stormont emboldened by her performance. She is only at the start of her career as leader. By contrast, Sinn Féin is struggling to find a succession plan for the old guard of McGuinness and Adams.
This wasn't how Sinn Féin planned the centenary of 1916 to turn out. However, the main challenge for Foster now if she wants to get things done is that she has to work with republicans to govern Northern Ireland effectively and avoid the stasis of recent years. The election result doesn't change that reality.