By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
The headlines are the startling votes the Trotskyist People Before Profit’s northern wing won in West Belfast and Derry.
That’s OK if you’re counting gains in terms of percentage share of the vote rather than in seats. At a very early stage it was quite clear that the governing coalition of Sinn Féin and the DUP would be re-elected with minor adjustments to the number of seats they hold. It’s seats that count.
Reporters from count centres all seem obsessed by who ‘tops the poll’ which of course is utterly meaningless in proportional representation elections. Therefore huge attention focussed on Gerry Carroll in West Belfast with 8,299 votes. The fact is that he had to top the poll to survive but Sinn Féin, with another marvellous display of superb vote management, got almost 20,000 votes carefully divided to maximise their seat number.
The same was true in Derry where both Sinn Féin and SDLP were each trying to win three seats so it was irrelevant who topped the poll. What was important was how the parties’ total votes were distributed. Since they had to distribute them carefully under the 4,000 mark, it was Eamonn McCann with an excellent 4,176 rather than Sinn Féin who looked likely to unseat the third SDLP candidate.
Nevertheless the large votes for People Before Profit candidates remain the story of the election. Left wing candidates did most damage to Sinn Féin and the SDLP. In West Belfast Sinn Féin’s share of the vote was down a whopping 11.6 per cent while the SDLP’s was down 6 per cent. PBP was up 18 per cent which pretty well accounts for the drop in the two nationalist parties’ vote. In Foyle it was a similar story. Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP were down around 5.5 per cent.
Across the north it was nationalist voters who switched to Independents if they stood and organised small parties like the Greens and PBP benefited.
Unionist parties were impervious to Independents locked as they were in their futile sectarian sham battle to keep Martin McGuinness out of the first minister’s position which they knew it was impossible for him to attain.
This specious policy ruthlessly driven by Arlene Foster prevented any bounce for the UUP. The inexperienced Mike Nesbitt announced he was ‘stunned’ by topping the poll in Strangford. Meaningless nonsense. He got 19.5 per cent of the vote compared to four DUP candidates who polled 43 per cent.
In Fermanagh/South Tyrone there was actually a swing to the DUP because of the Arlene effect and the UUP vote share was down 6.5 per cent. It was a similar story in Upper Bann.
Nevertheless despite the success of PBP and the Greens, when the dust settles it’s another four years of the DUP and Sinn Féin.
They already have what is effectively a pre-cooked Programme of Government. They’ll present it to the other parties, say take it or leave it, and then proceed to allocate executive positions. It won’t need a fortnight.
There is a danger for Sinn Féin however. Left wing candidates had no effect at all on unionism. Their own inarticulate home grown version in the shape of the PUP was crushed.
Another four years of more of the same will seriously damage Sinn Féin as they move more and more into establishment politics north and south.
Left wing candidates damaged Sinn Féin in the Republic’s election two months ago. They cost them at least two seats yesterday which leaves them dependant on the rump of the SDLP for petitions of concern.
At least since PBP and the Greens will not designate nationalist or unionist despite their success the status quo stays, but only on the surface. Sinn Féin beware.