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Sinn Féinís real prize is the demise of the SDLP

(Suzanne Breen, Sunday Life)

Only the begrudgers would deny that this has been an excellent election for Sinn Féin and its position as the dominant force in nationalist politics has been cemented.

The party will certainly be keeping its eye on dissident republican and independent candidates who performed strongly and now have a voice on several new supercouncils.

But the continued demise of the SDLP is the real prize for Sinn Féin. Overtaking its nationalist rival for the first time as the largest party in Derry, John Hume's hallowed ground, is hugely significant.

Electoral history shows that once Sinn Féin slips ahead of the SDLP, there's no turning back. It happened in Mid Ulster, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Newry and Armagh and so many other areas.

Mark Durkan's Westminster seat is surely in severe danger in next year's Westminster election.

The message from the nationalist community in this election is that they don't really care what happened in the war or what is exposed about Sinn Féin politicians' pasts.

Politics here is still a sectarian headcount and nationalists want to back the biggest green dog in the fight. Had Gerry Adams been charged with Jean McConville's murder, it may scarcely have made any electoral difference.

Sinn Féin's DUP partner in government isn't quite so secure. The TUV, PUP, and UKIP have made inroads into the party's vote. There is clearly dissatisfaction with what the DUP is doing among the rural right-wing and urban working-class Protestants.

But given that the election was played out against the OTR scandal and Gerry Adams arrest saga, it could have been a lot worse for the DUP. The party has solidified its position from when it was engulfed in controversy over expenses and land deals.

It can live with what votes it has haemorrhaged so far. Unionist grassroots may feel let down by the DUP on victims' and other issues but Peter Robinson doesn't face a fraction of the level of 'treachery' catcalls that David Trimble did.

It's been a good election for the Ulster Unionists. Mike Nesbitt has halted the political drift away from the party. His leadership has clearly struck a chord with the unionist electorate.

But considerable work must be done before the UUP is really competitive again. Even in the medium term, it's hard to see it nipping at the DUP's heels electorally.

Against all the odds, Alliance held its ground. NI21 should bring the curtain down on the farce it has become. It's time to wind up the party. For an EU hopeful to secure 256 votes in a council election as Tina McKenzie did is pitiful.

Dissident republican and independent candidates had a very strong election. Gary Donnelly in Derry doubled his vote from last time out to top the poll. Three other independents were elected to the council there.

Barry Monteith in Dungannon, Bernice Swift in Fermanagh, and Davy Hyland in Newry all performed well. But in Belfast, Sinn Féin's grip stayed solid in republican heartlands with independents making little impression.

Ex H-Block blanketman Paddy McCotter, widely expected to take a seat, performed poorly in Black Mountain. The paramilitary group ONH's political wing, the Republican Network for Unity, was trounced in West and North Belfast.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo was voiced, however, with the election of People Before Profit's Gerry Carroll in Belfast who will be a radical new voice in City Hall.

May 26, 2014

This article appeared in the May 25, 2014 edition of the Sunday Life.

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