Peter Robinson bounces back in Northern Ireland elections

The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein yesterday consolidated their positions as the dominant forces in Northern Ireland politics by scoring well in elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

As in the previous assembly, they will together hold more than half the seats in the devolved government. This means the DUP leader, Peter Robinson, is again expected to become First Minister, with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as his deputy.

The solid DUP performance confirms the remarkable recovery of Mr Robinson, who last year lost his Westminster seat as Protestant voters punished him in the wake of the Commons expenses scandal. This time he bounced back with a strong personal vote.

During the election campaign he and Mr McGuinness behaved with unusual courtesy towards each other, concentrating their fire on the smaller unionist and nationalist parties. This was a continuation of the pattern, established over the past year, of the two parties working closely in the assembly in what other parties criticised as a virtual two-party government.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein reject criticisms that this represents a "sectarian carve-up", maintaining that it amounts to a genuine sharing of power as the biggest representatives of the two communities.

In Northern Ireland terms such close co-operation is most unusual, but the election result contained no sign of any backlash against it. This makes it probable that the partnership will continue for the assembly's four-year term. At 54 per cent, the turnout was unusually low and debate continues on whether this indicates voter apathy or a level of approval or both.

The other two large parties, the Ulster Unionists and the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, fought uncomfortable campaigns which attracted criticisms of their leaders.

The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said the UUP and SDLP had not worked with other parties, maintaining: "They tried to cast themselves very artificially as being in government and opposition at the same time. That doesn't work."

Mr Robinson suggested, presumably tongue in cheek, that turnout had been kept low by election day showers which had followed a long spell of dry weather. Water certainly played a part at one count, when hairdryers had to be used to separate soggy ballot papers.

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