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12 May 2011

Winners and losers in Northern Ireland

And the winner is…   

Having locked horns over the distribution of ministerial portfolios, the five major parties finally chose their departments this week - a mere 11 days after the NI Assembly took place. The length of this delay was not a huge surprise considering it took nearly five days to get all of the results declared from the Assembly and Council elections and the ensuing discussion over how many posts each of the parties were entitled to.  

Some very definite winners and losers emerged as the results of both elections trickled in. The Alliance Party made significant gains in the Assembly election, narrowly missing out on a further two seats, and seeing yet another increase in their share of first preference votes. They are the only party to have seen such an increase at every election over the past 10 years. In the Council elections their gains were even more impressive with a 44 per cent increase in their number of seats. Their 'new voters' appeared to have come from both sides of the political divide - picking up former SDLP supporters in South Belfast and UUP supporters in North Down for example. As a cross-community party which refuses to engage with any form of sectarianism or tribal politics, this is hugely encouraging and hopefully reflects a growing change in how politics is defined here. The challenge now is to provide these cross-community/a-constitutional voters with clear and tangible results - evidence of 'grown up' politics - something that David Ford and Stephen Farry, in their ministerial positions, will be all too aware of.  

The DUP and Sinn Fein remain as the two largest parties, maintaining their share of the vote and making marginal increases in terms of seats overall.  The UUP and SDLP on the other hand saw their share of the vote and number of seats decrease significantly. The UUP lost six seats on the Belfast City Council - a council it once ruled.   

While their performance at the polls may have been similar, initially, differences were seen in the way these two parties have responded.  The SDLP appeared to be maintaining a generally optimistic view of their future as a party whereas the UUP seemed to be entering 'meltdown'. This was not helped by Basil McCrea, the one-time UUP leadership contender commenting that "the writing is on the wall" for the party and their current leader's outburst calling Sinn Fein supporters "scum".   

Yet commentary on initial reactions has now taken a back seat after some surprising decisions were made over the departments parties chose and the subsequent ministerial appointments. Early predictions that Sinn Fein wanted an economic brief and the DUP would then choose education turned out to be unfounded, leaving the issue of the post-primary education still very much up in the air. The UUP's choice of Danny Kennedy to be their only minister has been seen as a good move; cementing their more rural supporter base - the same base that Tom Elliot, the party's leader, draws most of his support from.  The SDLP leader, Margaret Ritchie, however, has had her decision to re-appoint Alex Attwood to their only ministerial post at the expense of the experienced and popular Patsy McGlone, widely criticised even from within the party. It appears that both the UUP and the SDLP have many tough questions to answer in the months ahead.   

Prior to the election there was a call from the family of the murdered police constable Ronan Kerr for people to vote, demonstrating a commitment to the peace process. Yet despite the increase in votes for the Alliance and many of the other parties engaging in more positive campaign rhetoric this time round, the turn out on Election Day was still down on previous years - although some have suggested this might actually indicate a normalisation of politics here.  

However, three particular results in the Council Elections were concerning as they suggest that the support for dissident groups in certain areas is not as low as many believed.  In the Upper and Lower Falls (Belfast City Council) and Cityside (Derry City Council) three candidates standing for groups in support of the recent terrorist activity gained nearly 3000 votes between them. Although all available information suggests that support across the board is extremely limited it appears that in certain pockets it does exist and that complacency is not something we can afford.   

Having said this, much of the support for these groups is not borne out of ideological conviction but disaffection, anger and boredom. If our newly elected politicians are able to fulfil many of their manifesto pledges - including building a shared future, creating jobs and tackling poverty - then we should be hopeful that such support will not grow. If the churches are also committed to peace then we too have to work towards these same goals - doing all we can to impact the communities around us in practical and positive ways and holding government to account for their actions, that we might contribute to the peace and prosperity of our nation.