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SDLP left counting its losses as Sinn Fein take key seats

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Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

PA

Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Sinn Fein's main success in the Assembly election was against the SDLP but also against Fianna Fail's plans to expand north in 2019.

The ethnic and political demographics of the North remain unchanged, with about 60pc of voters committed to the union with Great Britain and regarding themselves as 'British' or 'Northern Irish'.

The 2011 census figures show that there has been barely any change in people's views in Northern Ireland since partition and the elections of 1921.

A remarkable 93.5pc of Northern Ireland's population described themselves as being of either Protestant or Catholic background in the last census. It is a given that the 48.4pc who described themselves as Protestant voted unionist but so too did a significant part of the Catholic population.

Of the 90 Assembly seats, 49 are unionist and 39 nationalist (excluding the two successful Green MLAs).

Sinn Fein's 'historic' breakthroughs were in South Down and Foyle. While the SDLP held on to two seats in each constituency, the SF vote has, for the first time, substantially passed its rival nationalist party's support in what were regarded as SDLP heartlands.

The quietly expressed view among SDLP workers yesterday and on Friday was that they are no longer a match for Sinn Fein's electoral machine. SDLP workers accused Sinn Fein of blatant personation in several constituencies. One referred to an old people's home in a well-known nationalist town where "they all postal voted for Sinn Fein, even the bed-ridden ones with dementia".

Asked why there were no SDLP challenges to the alleged vote carry on, she replied: "Who's going to do that. They're the IRA."

In Belfast, opponents said Sinn Fein was able to call on several hundred full-time 'community' workers, many of them former Provisional IRA members and ex-prisoners. "There are around 50 or 60 Sinn Fein 'community' groups in the town and every single one of them turned into Sinn Fein offices," a non-Sinn Fein, non-SDLP Catholic voter said.

Some 60,000 people were removed from the North's electoral register in December for failing to return electoral forms. Sinn Fein said 6,000 of these were in West Belfast and it was able to visit most of them and 'convince' 3,000 to vote - mostly for Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein saw off the SDLP's sole MLA in west Belfast, Alex Attwood, and prevented the popular People before Profit candidate, Gerry Carroll, from bringing in his running mate, Michael Collins. The Sinn Fein vote co-ordination in West Belfast in winning four of the five seats was an extraordinary performance of precision vote spreading.

The only hint of a change to the ethnic-religious demographic was in North Belfast which returned tree nationalist seats out of five. This is a first and could presage another Sinn Fein MP, although there is still a slim unionist majority.

While seen outside Northern Ireland as a victory for Sinn Fein against the DUP - despite not actually beating the DUP vote - there are signs that a noticeable number of Northern voters are moving away from the traditional sectarian head counting. SDLP voters probably helped secure Fermanagh-South Tyrone for the Ulster Unionist Party's Tom Elliott in the 2015 Westminster election, a seat formerly held by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. Last week's vote showed no sign that the 'moderate' Catholic vote that went to Mr Elliott has not moved back towards SF.

The non- sectarian though broadly unionist Alliance Party won eight seats and East Belfast, formerly Peter Robinson's and the DUP's key urban stronghold, which could now be arguably described as a bastion for the cross-community Alliance Party, with two out of five seats.

The big losers were obviously the DUP, resulting from the damage caused by its members' involvement in the fraudulent renewable energy scheme prior to the election. Significantly, the DUP has lost its 30-seat veto over legislation. If the Assembly returns, this shift would allow Northern Ireland to introduce gay marriage, something which the Creationist, fundamentalist element in the DUP strongly opposed.

It is not a given, however. The sole piece of legislation passed by the Assembly was the same prohibition on prostitution that was passed into law in the Republic last month and that was driven by the Creationists (those who believe in the Biblical as opposed to the scientific explanations of evolution) in the DUP along with Sinn Fein support.

The forcing of the Assembly election was a gamble for Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein but it has paid off brilliantly in terms of achieving the short-term gain of comprehensively sidelining the SDLP and putting a barrier in front of Fianna Fail's plans to establish cummainn and begin running in NI elections.

That, sources close to Sinn Fein said, was foremost in the minds of Adams and the IRA coterie which, as British securocrats said in the wake of the IRA's murder of Belfast man Kevin McGuigan in August 2015, has "over-arching control" of Sinn Fein.

The election result also provides the party with the confidence to pursue its plans for government on both sides of the Border.

The SF brigades of 'community' volunteers will now be focused on repeating this success south of the Border, always the IRA's ultimate aim.

As for Arlene Foster (left), her position as the Iron Lady leader of the DUP is still in question and the mum of three - who was at the helm when her party haemorrhaged 10 seats - will be in reflective mood today.

Whether or not she'll shed any tears (crocodile or otherwise) remains to be seen.

Sunday Independent