Hard men win early victories in elections for Assembly

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The Independent Online

The first two victories of the day told the story of yesterday's election count, as the voters of the sectarian cockpit of north Belfast put two hard men at the top of the poll.

The first two members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to be elected were Nigel Dodds, the Democratic Unionist Westminster MP for the area, together with Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly. It will take until late this afternoon for the other 108 Assembly seats to be filled but the pattern was clear: Sinn Fein and the Paisleyites have done well and will make gains, while the Ulster Unionists and nationalist SDLP were having a bad day.

In terms of north Belfast the result was predictable, since both Mr Dodds and Mr Kelly have created sharp, well-organised and hard-working political machines.

The DUP also saw success in the west of the city with Mr Dodds' wife, Diane, holding off a strong challenge from Sinn Fein to win a seat.

Most acknowledge that the two have outgunned their rivals, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, in the crucial respects of campaign planning and motivating election workers. Sinn Fein was able to draw on battalions of activists. But the broader political picture also favoured the two parties.

Both have cause to hope that when the counts are eventually completed they will emerge as the primary voices of nationalism and Unionism.

The SDLP clearly suffered from the absence of trusty vote deliverers such as John Hume and Seamus Mallon, and was unable to produce an impressive second-tier of younger politicians capable of taking their place. The SDLP imported a bevy of "spin doctors" from Dublin, most of whom had worked for the main parties in the Republic. The result was a more aggressive SDLP campaign, with attacks on both Sinn Fein and the Rev Ian Paisley. The signs are that nationalist voters were unimpressed by this approach, though there are no signs of anything like a collapse in the SDLP. Rather, the pattern that emerges may be the familiar one of the SDLP holding its vote while Sinn Fein wins the support of almost all Catholics and nationalists voting for the first time. Sinn Fein is confident that it will overtake the SDLP and finish the count with appreciably more Assembly members. While this is not yet certain, it would signal the opening of an important new political phase.

A Sinn Fein success will mean that the winner on the Unionist side, whether it is Mr Paisley or David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, will have to deal with the fact that republicans will speak for the bulk of northern nationalism.

Mr Paisley did well yesterday, and Ulster Unionists will be anxiously hoping that the second day of the count is better for them. This often happens, as they tend to pick up more transfers than do the Democratic Unionists. The UUP may also suffer from what looks like a reduced turnout in some Unionist areas, with Protestant voter apathy costing the party seats. Convincing victories for internal party critics of Mr Trimble, such as the Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson, provided unmistakable electoral confirmation that Protestant opinion has swung sharply against the Good Friday Agreement. All of this means that an early reinstatement of the Assembly and devolved government is unlikely.

The Government will begin a review of the Agreement next month, with the DUP calling for it to be expanded into a full-scale renegotiation of the accord. This will be resisted by the Government and other parties, but it seems certain that the next few weeks and months will see not devolution but post-electoral negotiation.