Parties see familiar election story in the North

The story of the 2011 Assembly election has repeated the same plot-line that has been played out for the last 10 years in the North.

The story of the 2011 Assembly election has repeated the same plot-line that has been played out for the last 10 years in the North.

The script continues to cast the Ulster Unionists and the nationalist SDLP in the losing role, as the DUP and Sinn Féin once again ride high in the polls.

During the hothouse talks that became a recurring feature of the peace process, it was believed that Catholic and Protestant voters backed the two big beasts of Stormont politics because they saw them as tough negotiators.

The so-called centre-ground parties hoped that they could claw back support when politics shifted its focus to bread-and-butter issues.

But First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have positioned their parties as best placed to tackle the big economic problems, and have portrayed their opponents as unruly elements failing to act in the common good.

The DUP and Sinn Féin now return to Stormont Castle to settle other major outstanding issues. These include seeking agreement on a permanent system for selecting Stormont’s justice minister, settling divisions over the Irish language and Orange Order parades, plus tackling policy divisions on key areas such as education.

In the absence of any major shift in the balance of power at Stormont, historians may see the 2011 Assembly election as little more than a pause for breath, before the ’big two’ entered the next round of political negotiations.

Despite the dissident republican murder of constable Ronan Kerr, the election has underlined the widespread support for the peace process. It also shed new light on the state of the main parties.

:: The Democratic Unionist Party

Peter Robinson’s party dominates the unionist bloc with a swagger that comes of knowing it has nothing to fear from its rivals.

It added two Assembly seats, to reach a mammoth 38, in an election where many believed the party may have had to stomach losses.

It has also effectively seen-off the threat of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice. The group’s leader Jim Allister promises to be a thorn in the side at Stormont, but he will be a lone voice.

Mr Robinson has also completed his political resurrection after his career seemed doomed by the sex and money scandal that engulfed his wife, Iris. The DUP leader is now at the height of his powers.

:: Sinn Féin

The republican party was always going to hold on to its mantle as the largest nationalist voice, but in the wake of its recent successes in the Republic of Ireland’s general election, it needed to be seen to be maintaining its momentum.

Gerry Adams’ move south of the border helped Sinn Féin boost its standing in the Dail parliament to 14 seats, with an additional three seats in the senate in Dublin.

North of the border, it has snatched a one-seat gain, and reached 29 Assembly posts, after a nervous final few hours of counting during which it could have simply matched its 2007 seat total.

The win included the highly symbolic seizing of a third seat in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

Sinn Féin had flagged-up that the election campaign coincided with the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike in the Maze prison. The party relished its victory in the constituency where IRA prisoner Bobby Sands was elected MP before he starved to death in the high profile jail protest.

Sinn Féin has also sown the seeds for possible future gains in areas including Upper Bann, Mid Ulster and Foyle. Now as the party eyes its options for ministerial posts at Stormont, observers will wait to see what Martin McGuinness had in mind when he said that, while the last Assembly was a time for building relationships with unionists, the next term will be about “delivery”.

:: The Ulster Unionist Party

Tom Elliott snatched PR failure from the jaws of PR success with his outburst towards Sinn Fein supporters in the Omagh count centre, whom he branded “scum”.

His attack came as his party was beginning to argue that a two-seat loss, leaving it with 16, was much better than had been predicted for the UUP.

But the episode revived memories of Mr Elliott’s verbal attacks on the GAA and the gay community during his bid for the UUP leadership last year.

It also re-opened the divide between his party’s conservative and more liberal wings.

His leadership has again been called into question and now his electoral losses raise the prospect of his party losing one of its two ministerial posts to the cross-community Alliance Party.

:: The SDLP

Margaret Ritchie’s leadership has also been called into question despite an election campaign where the SDLP, like the UUP, could have suffered heavier losses.

The SDLP’s final tally fell from 16 seats to 14, despite private party predictions of holding the line. But her critics fear the SDLP will remain on a downward trajectory.

SDLP stalwarts know that Sinn Féin is positioned to make further gains at their expense next time round.

Ms Ritchie took the reins last year and has tried to court soft unionist voters, while also attacking Sinn Fein’s performance in government to woo nationalists.

But her internal critics are beginning to raise questions over her performance as leader.

Political parties have to be united in the run-in to an election, but the gloves can come off when the polls close.

:: Alliance Party

David Ford’s role as Justice Minister and his party’s success in seizing the East Belfast Westminster seat were highlighted as reasons for its Assembly success.

But Alliance says its one-seat gain, to reach a total of eight, plus its increased vote share in a number of constituencies, is a success that has been decades in the making. Mr Ford said long years of hard work were seeing his party increase its support.

The Alliance wants to tempt away those liberal UUP voters attracted by a positive political message.

And observers noted that, following what is being called Tom Elliott’s “moment” at the Omagh count, Mr Ford was quick out of the blocks with a statement attacking the UUP leader and characterising his comments as an unwelcome blast from the past.

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