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4 December 2003 Edition

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Tremendous day for Sinn Féin

BY LAURA FRIEL

Davy Hyland, Pat O'Rawe and Conor Murphy at Banbridge Count Centre

Davy Hyland, Pat O'Rawe and Conor Murphy at Banbridge Count Centre

"It's a tremendous day for Sinn Féin," said UTV political commentator Ken Reid, responding to the percentage swing towards Sinn Féin as details of the first preference votes were announced. The graphic on the screen showed a woeful red wedge representing the percentage secured by the SDLP (19.02%) almost pushed into oblivion by the green wedge of Sinn Féin (65.04%) in West Belfast. And the trend was replicated across the Six Counties, confirming Sinn Féin's status as the leading voice within northern nationalism.

With a percentage vote increase of a third, the party not only returned 24 seats, an increase of six, but also demonstrated the real possibility of securing extra seats in any future Assembly election. Close analysis of the figures shows that in three constituencies, Sinn Féin had come to within a hair's breadth of electing three more candidates. It was a clear indication that the party's potential is far from realised.

As the largest nationalist party in the North and the second party of government, Sinn Féin gains the right to nominate the Deputy First Minister in any forthcoming administration, as well as a Junior Ministry and two full Ministries. Their 18 seats means the SDLP will have two Ministers.

Furthermore, this week's gains have consolidated Sinn Féin's status as the third largest party within the island of Ireland. Sinn Féin's All-Ireland focus has been so successful that, according to the media, some senior members of the SDLP are currently advocating their party's merger with Fianna Fáil.

However, Fianna Fáil's preoccupation appears to be with Sinn Féin rather than the SDLP. According to the Dublin media, Bertie Ahern will be paying close attention to Sinn Féin in the months leading up to this summer's local and European elections. Fianna Fáil now believes Sinn Fáin could become the second largest party in Dublin. An IMS poll taken last month put Sinn Féin well ahead of Fine Gael and snapping at the heels of Labour in the capital. Sinn Féin is already the largest party in Belfast, with seven Assembly seats to the DUP's six.

Of the six additional seats taken by Sinn Féin, of particular political significance were the elections of Alex Maskey, Francie Brolly and Philip McGuigan, all of whom were successful in constituencies where Sinn Fein had not secured a seat before.

Elected in Paisley's heartland of North Antrim, Philip McGuigan polled just 5.8% less than Big Ian, just 3.9% behind Ian Jr, and gained more than 1,500 more first preference votes than the SDLP's former Minister, Seán Farren, who was forced to wait for the elimination of his party colleague to retain his seat.

In South Belfast, Alex Maskey's victory was twofold. A first in terms of a Sinn Féin seat within the constituency and with its relatively affluent middle-class electorate, Sinn Féin has demonstrated that it can now attract support within the wider nationalist community. Significantly, the party also gained a measure of support from pro-Agreement unionists.

Pat O'Rawe of Newry and Armagh and Kathy Stanton in North Belfast brought two new women into the Assembly, but the loss of Dara O Hagan and Sue Ramsey meant that the overall percentage of female representation within the Sinn Féin Assembly team remains the same.

West Belfast candidate Sue Ramsey fell casualty to the complexities of the PR system, missing regaining her seat by a shortfall of 87 votes.

But Sue's defeat was compounded by 3.6% of SDLP votes (128) that were transferred to the DUP. Given the focus of the SDLP's election campaign and its slogan, "stop the DUP", it was an eventuality no one had anticipated. Clearly, there remains an element within the SDLP electorate that operates solely on the basis of an anti-Sinn Féin vote.

Martin Meehan in South Antrim polled 11.5%, with 4,295 votes, over 1,500 more first preference votes than the SDLP's Tom Burns, who was elected after receiving transfers from the elimination of anther SDLP candidate and over 900 votes ahead of Alliance candidate David Ford, elected by unionist transfers on the eleventh count.

Paul Butler also narrowly failed to get elected in Lagan Valley, polling 3,242 votes, more than twice the number of votes secured by UUP candidate Norah Beare, who was elected on the 10th count. Clearly, Sinn Féin still needs to address the question of transfers.

But if the SDLP made up some of its lost ground by gaining transfers, their failure to hold on to a significant percentage of their first preference votes cut the party's number of seats from 24 to 18. The SDLP did not, as many media commentators predicted, "go into meltdown" but nevertheless there were plenty of hard knocks.

The SDLP leadership had already been decimated by the decision of so many party veterans to stand down - John Hume, Séamus Mallon, Eddy McGrady, Brid Rodgers. The party's heavyweights were further decimated by over a 5% drop in the SDLP vote.

On the eve of the election, fears that the SDLP would not even manage to re-elect its party chairperson, Alex Attwood, provoked the leadership into ditching West Belfast veteran Joe Hendron. SDLP election workers were seen removing Hendron's election posters in key areas on the morning of the poll, effectively handing it over to Attwood. Hendron said he had been asked "to take a hit" in the interests of the party.

Meanwhile, the UUP held onto its core vote, with a slight increase and an extra seat, despite the DUP's decimation of the independents and other smaller anti-Agreement parties. Trimble had, at last, found the courage to run a pro-Agreement campaign, hoping that it would motivate unionist supporters of the GFA who had voted in the referendum but had failed to support the UUP ever since.

But the strategy failed to secure the UUP's position as the North's largest unionist party. 150,000 unionist voters failed to vote. Trimble blamed party 'in-fighting'.

Robbed of the status of unionism's natural party of government, the UUP leader discovered a new majority that deserved his allegiance, the pro-Agreement majority, which includes nationalists, within the Assembly.

"I'm not going to settle for stalemate," he said. "Prolonged direct rule is not in anyone's interest." Any attempt to "revert to a unionist dreamland that never existed", said Trimble, was not in anyone's interests either. "There is no future in that and no future in the gesturing of the DUP. That will become clear."

Trimble went on to say that voters would realise that they had made a mistake by putting their trust in the DUP. "There are hard choices to be made. That's the reality of the situation. We're accustomed to that. We're not a group of people who have dealt with wishlists and dreams of things that will not happen."

Despite Trimble having effectively held the line, Jeffrey Donaldson immediately called for his leader‚s resignation. Trimble's leadership was no longer tenable, said Donaldson. "It's time for a change and if a vacancy arises, I will consider putting my name forward," he said. Trimble's supporters countered Donaldson's call to arms by demanding his immediate adherence to party discipline.

And so to the DUP's 'triumph'. True, they outpolled the UUP, their traditional election rivals, returning 30 seats to the UUP's 27. But their moment of victory was somewhat moderated by the fact that the UUP vote had not collapsed. The DUP has snatched the mantle of office from unionism's traditional power brokers, but will their apparent ascendancy within unionism really add up?

As Trimble was swift to point out, the DUP lacks the political cohesion and record of government of its rival. Its collectivity is largely ideologically based, dependent upon a common rhetoric rather than a clear political strategy. This might work well in opposition, but will it stand up to the rigours of real choices and the decision making process?

Trimble clearly believes that, faced with the same choices as the UUP, the DUP will either make the same decisions, or refuse to make any decisions at all. Unfortunately for the DUP, "Never, never, never," is no longer a sustainable position. The DUP's vision, like its leader Ian Paisley, at the very moment of its power grasp, has never looked so exposed and frail.

As for the British, their propaganda model of two warring tribes, each as bad as the other, with the British playing the role of neutral piggy in the middle, became strained almost to breaking point during the elections.

The British media and its acolytes dutifully presented Sinn Féin's electoral rise as comparable to DUP gains. The message was that the "extremists", as opposed to the lunatics, had taken over the asylum. But such nonsense cannot stand up to scrutiny.

When did a commitment to conflict resolution and progressive change become "extremist"? Can you have too much peace? Too much equality? Too much power-sharing?

In truth, the ideological tables have already been turned. A section of unionism alone poses the "extremist" threat to the current political process and attempts to nail Sinn Féin's colours to their mast is out of joint with history as it unfurls.

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