SF defies critics with fresh gains

Blame and retribution have replaced joy and sorrow following a crushing defeat for David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin’s eclipsing of the rival nationalist SDLP in the North’s elections.

David Trimble has resigned after the Ulster Unionist Party scored its worst ever result.

Ian Paisley and his hardline DUP reaped the gains, winning four new seats in a swing to to extreme unionist right.

A continuing transformation on the nationalist side saw Sinn Féin’s vote increased steadily across the North.

Conor Murphy became the new MP for Newry and Armagh, although the party failed to capitalise on a major effort in Foyle, where the SDLP’s Mark Durkan managed to hold on to John Hume’s seat.

A split unionist vote in South Belfast helped to allow the SDLP to hold onto its three Westminster seats.

But David Trimble was the biggest political casualty of a day of political drama at many of the 18 counts in the Six Counties.

The Nobel Laureate was soundly defeated by DUP candidate David Simpson in the Upper Bann constituency.

“Pushover unionism is gone forever,” said victorious Democratic Unionist David Simpson after he took Trimble’s Upper Bann seat.

The UUP representation at Westminster was reduced from five to one, with Sylvia Hermon in North Down the only survivor.

Inevitably, David Trimble announced his intention to step down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, formally resigning today -- but not before allowing that he should not have held on so long.

He claimed Republicans had caused the electoral collapse of the UUP vote, by failing to disarm completely by May 2000 -- something he said was required under honour the Good Friday Agreement.

“If they had implemented the Agreement then they would have disarmed completely in May 2000, that is what they undertook to do, that is what they failed to do.

“The net result of all of that is that there is total disgust in the Unionist community with them,” Mr Trimble told BBC Radio.

Sinn Féin made no statement on Trimble’s demise. However, republicans have not mourned his departure, pointing to the UUP leader’s repeated refusal to abide by his commitments to share power, his escalating demands, tantrums and ultimatums.

The British government’s alleged “indulgence” of Republicans was a contributory factor, Trimble claimed today -- ignoring what nationalists came to know as the ‘Save Dave’ campaign, whereby the governments repeatedly conceded Trimble’s demands in order to protect the UUP leader from hardliners within his own party.

He also said the DUP would likely drop their opposition to the Agreement and seek to have it implemented in full. “The DUP, despite the rhetoric, appear to me to have given up the objective of destroying the Agreement,” he said.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams MP thanked all those who voted for Sinn Féin returning it as the largest pro-Agreement and largest nationalist party. He said “the opportunity for progress must now be seized. We want to see a return to the talks as quickly as possible.”

Mr Adams received a huge personal vote in west Belfast, where the party also took nine out of ten council seats. He said that Sinn Féin went into the election “seeking an endorsement of our peace strategy and in particular of our initiative to get the process back on track”. Mr Adams was referring to his appeal to the the Provisional IRA to disarm completely, end its armed struggle and allow its cause to be pursued by purely political means in order to facilitate talks with the DUP.

With counting still continuing in the local elections, efforts to renew the peace process have already begun. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has already met the re-elected British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Moscow for informal discussions on the North.

Blair’s new appointee as Direct Ruler, Peter Hain, has already arrived in Belfast, and has held informal meetings with Gerry Adams and other political leaders.

In a statement, the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said it was “time to move beyond the current stalemate”.

“Now that the elections are over it is time to definitively resolve the crisis of trust and confidence . . . and to get on with the vital project of fully implementing the Good Friday agreement.

“. . . In the course of the election campaign and in response to the meeting last January with the Government, Sinn Féin have appealed to the IRA to commit itself to purely peaceful and democratic methods. I said at the time that this initiative had potential. We await a reply to this appeal. That reply must be clear. And it must be decisive.”

It is not clear what effect, if any, Mr Adams’s appeal had on the election results.

Turnout in both local and general elections at just over 63% was some 5% lower than in 2001. With the number of registered voters also down following controversial new registration procedures, almost 100,000 fewer votes were counted than four years ago.

An overall swing from unionist parties to nationalists was estimated to be under 1%, less than expected given demogtaphic changes in the Six Counties. Nationalists estimated that up to 2% of their number failed to vote on this occasion.

The final overall result in the Westminster election was:

DUP (33.71%) - 9 seats, up 3
SF (24.32%) - 5 seats, up 1
UUP (17.74%) - 1 seat, down 4
SDLP (17.51%) - 3 seats, unchanged
Alliance (3.94%)
K. Deeny (1.66%)
Conservative (0.38%)
Workers’ Party (0.23%)
SEA (0.23%)
Others (0.26%)


Counting continued today in the local elections, where the improved fortunes for Sinn Féin and the DUP were translating into further gains on local councils. Sinn Féin has won its first seats in the unionist strongholds of Ballymena and Limavady.

Control of the Derry and Belfast councils remain in the balance tonight. Full results will be published here in due course.

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