Blair meets Ahern as Paisley's unionists take lead

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were today due to consider their next move in the peace process as hardline unionists continued to make the running in the Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair were today due to consider their next move in the peace process as hardline unionists continued to make the running in the Northern Ireland Assembly election.

The two leaders were due to meet in Cardiff as counting resumed in Northern Ireland for the Assembly election.

At the end of the day’s counting in 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland, the Rev Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists had surged into the lead with 20 seats.

Sinn Féin had also hammered its main nationalist rival the SDLP, winning 13 seats.

David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists had 12 MLAs elected while Mark Durkan’s SDLP had secured only three seats.

The DUP also had the largest share of the overall vote, with Sinn Féin finishing second.

Mr Ahern and Mr Blair were expected to follow today’s count closely in the hope that Mr Trimble’s Ulster Unionists would be able to close the lead established by the DUP.

But even if his party were to draw level or overtake the DUP on vote transfers, the belief in Belfast, London and Dublin was that he would have less room to manoeuvre in his party.

One of Mr Trimble’s biggest internal critics, Jefffrey Donaldson, who polled strongly in his Lagan Valley constituency, claimed last night the rise in support for the DUP indicated strong unionist dissatisfaction with the Good Friday Agreement.

“We are now the second party in unionism after this election,” he said.

“I think there are serious questions in the unionist population as to the Agreement and support for the Agreement.

“Now is the time to examine that.”

The Democratic Unionist Party was buoyed by the sensational victory of its candidate in West Belfast Diane Dodds, whose husband Nigel is the MP for North Belfast.

Mr Dodds said: “One of the most significant events is this result in West Belfast.

“In the heartland of republicans, of Sinn Féin, Unionists have won a seat back and that is the story of this election.

“We were told throughout the campaign about the greening of the West, the onward advance of Sinn Féin and of unionism in retreat.

“Unionists across the province will take a look at West Belfast and say unionists can win and that will provide a massive fillip for people in West Belfast, on Shankill and right across Northern Ireland.”

Sinn Féin were disappointed not to take five out of the six West Belfast seats.

But the party’s performance across Northern Ireland clearly established it as the major voice in nationalism.

Sinn Féin was today poised to make gains in North Belfast, South Belfast and in North Antrim.

In Newry and Armagh, the party took three seats.

Sinn Féin candidates were also in the hunt for seats in South Antrim, Lagan Valley and South Down.

Their leader Gerry Adams claimed the party’s gains were an endorsement of their peace process strategy.

“We asked people to endorse the risks we were taking with the peace process. We stood on our record in the Assembly and the Executive,” the West Belfast MP said.

Sinn Féin’s gains came mostly at the expense of the SDLP’s Mr Durkan, who put a brave face on his party’s disappointing performance.

Smaller parties in the last Assembly were also squeezed, with the cross community Alliance Party and Women’s Coalition under severe pressure.

Progressive Unionist leader David Ervine managed to hold his seat in East Belfast, but his Assembly colleague Billy Hutchinson was increasingly looking as if he would lose out to Sinn Féin in North Belfast.

In the biggest surprise of the election, single-issue hospitals candidate Kieran Deeny topped the poll in West Tyrone, taking the seat at the expense of the SDLP.

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