15 March 2007 Edition
Assembly election : Sinn Féin could become North's biggest party
Resounding success as republican vote continues to climb
BY LAURA FRIEL
The computer graphics told it all. The arc of Sinn Féin’s electoral mandate still climbing, with the DUP vote dropping away from its 2005 peak and the SDLP and UUP in steep decline.
What is now clear is that the prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party in the North and holding the position of First Minister in a Six County Executive is an achievable objective.
Across the board Sinn Féin increased its share of the vote in every constituency bar one with the largest increases in West Tyrone, South Antrim, West Belfast, Lagan Valley, South Down, North Belfast and Upper Bann.
In West Tyrone all three Sinn Féin candidates topped the poll bringing Barry McElduff and Pat Doherty in on the first count and Clare McGill on the third. In South Antrim Mitchel McLaughlin topped the poll trouncing media expectations that had predicted the Sinn Féin General Secretary would be left fighting for the last seat.
Scenes of elation in West Belfast followed the successful election of all Sinn Féin’s five candidates in an election campaign conceded by the media as “absolutely brilliant”. Sinn Féin successfully unseated Diane Dodds who held a seat for the DUP in the last election. Meanwhile the SDLP vote collapsed in West Belfast with Alex Attwood polling just over 3,000 votes.
North Belfast achieved its target of securing a greater percentage of the nationalist vote as part of a long-term project to challenge Nigel Dodds. Gerry Kelly was elected on the first count snapping at the heels of the DUP candidate who topped the polls. Carál Ní Chuilín polled with the third largest vote but had to wait for the third count to be elected because she was just short of the quota.
In South Down Catríona Rune topped the polls but had to wait until the seventh count before being elected with Willie Clarke not far behind. With Sinn Féin’s percentage of the first preference vote now almost equal to the SDLP the party is now well placed to contest the next Westminster election in a constituency long held by the SDLP.
In Upper Bann John O Dowd topped the polls and reaching the quota was elected on the first count. In Lagan Valley Paul Butler made history by being the first Sinn Féin MLA elected in the constituency.
Short of the quota by just a few hundred votes, Butler had to wait for the sixth count before being elected but that didn’t make it any the less historic. It was the first time Lagan Valley’s scattered rural nationalist vote had successfully secured representation.
In Mid Ulster all three Sinn Féin candidates were elected on the first count having secured mandates above the quota. Martin McGuinness topped the poll with Francie Molloy and Michelle O’Neill not far behind polling third and fourth.
Sinn Féin took almost half of the first preference vote in Mid Ulster, to be beaten only by West Belfast where Sinn Féin took almost 70% of the first preference vote. In Newry and Armagh Sinn Féin took over 40% of the first preference vote with candidates Conor Murphy, who topped the poll and Cathal Boylan elected on the first count.
In North Antrim, the DUP’s heartland, one of Sinn Féin's youngest candidates Daithí McKay was elected on the first count, only a few hundred votes behind the DUP leader Ian Paisley, while pipping Ian Óg to the post by almost a thousand votes.
In Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Mitchelle Gildernew was elected on the first count with Gerry McHugh, despite polling strongly, just scraping another seat for Sinn Féin on the eighth count.
Without exception, independent candidates standing against Sinn Féin failed to win significant support with the electorate. The electorate's resounding message was support for the peace process and support for Sinn Féin's peace strategy.
Sinn Féin has increased it’s electoral mandate in every election since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and last week’s poll further endorsed that trend with the party making significant gains across the North.
The election secured Sinn Féin's place as the largest nationalist party in the North as the gap between the party and the SDLP widened still further. In every constituency, bar one, Sinn Féin's vote increased. In every constituency, bar one, the SDLP vote fell.
In other words the SDLP not only failed to make any progress they also suffered further slippage. With Sinn Féin's vote rising beyond the losses of the SDLP it is clear that the party is attracting a new vote while the SDLP are failing even to hold onto their traditional support base.
The DUP polled twice the vote of its unionist rival but Paisley only managed to secure just over half of the disaffected unionist vote. The UUP first preference vote fell by 7.7% while the DUP increased its share of the vote by 4.4%.
But the election story isn’t simply about rivals within the separate unionist and nationalist camps. The demise of the UUP has a political significance far beyond its impact within unionism.
The UUP, once the ‘natural’ power brokers of the Orange state, wielded absolute power for over 50 years. The electoral misfortunes of the UUP represent a fracture within the continuity of unionist hegemony within which the DUP sits less comfortably.
Meanwhile the outstanding quality of Sinn Féin's leadership, the party’s negotiating skills and their distinct all Ireland message is proving to be increasingly popular amongst the voters. Even by those who have voted for other parties in the past, Sinn Féin is increasingly being recognised as a campaigning, rights-based party that puts people first.
“Im Protestant but my vote went to Sinn Féin and they deserve it.” These are the words of a woman living in the predominantly unionist Suffolk estate in West Belfast. Posted on the Internet the writer recounts her 14-month struggle to secure a wheelchair for an elderly person recovering from a stroke.
“The DUP were contacted, they didn’t return the call, the UUP were called, again no response. Sinn Féin was called, the call was returned and within 4 hours a wheel chair was available. Any wonder their vote is so high?”