The Assembly and Local Council election campaign was generally reported by the media as ‘low key’.
Some commentators even got a bit carried away with themselves almost suggesting that the lower than usual turnout somehow devalued the democratic mandate of those who have just been elected!
But the Assembly and local government counts and the results they produced, turned out to have some of the excitement which the campaign itself lacked.
The outburst by the UUP leader Tom Elliot in Omagh count centre on Saturday caught the headlines. Tom was having a bad day. From a confident pose just a few weeks ago in which he was predicting gains for his party the results emerging from count centres across the north were of the UUP losing votes and seats.
It wasn’t meltdown. But his election last year as party leader had been met with jubilation by party activists. After David Trimble and Reg Empey’s leadership terms a lot of the UUP faithful had put their hope and trust in this former UDR soldier to reverse the failing fortunes of the party.
From a traditional Ulster Unionist perspective he has all the right credentials. He is a Past County Grand Master of the Orange Order within Fermanagh and Assistant Secretary to the Grand Lodge of Ireland. He is also a member of the Royal Black Preceptory. And he spent 18 years of his life in the Ulster Defence Regiment – which was eventually disbanded by the British because of its record of sectarianism and involvement in collusion with unionist death squads – and in the Royal Irish Regiment.
And yet here he was falling at the first electoral hurdle of his leadership. Worse the DUP Shinners were doing well. Oliver McMullan’s win for Sinn Féin in East Antrim meant that the UUP were left with 16 seats.
The sight of the Irish national flag- the Tricolour - in the Omagh count centre clearly annoyed Tom Elliot. His description of it as the flag of a ‘foreign nation’ drew some derision from the Sinn Féin election workers and candidates, but it was his retort describing them as ‘the scum of Sinn Féin’ which earned Elliot widespread criticism.
Tom should withdraw the remark and put it behind him, and get on with rebuilding his party. That would be the sensible thing to do - thus far he doesn’t appear to be inclined to do this.
The results from the Local Government election have continued this downward drift for the UUP.
The SDLP have also had their set backs. Two Assembly seats down, several more under serious threat and a significant drop in the vote. And this trend has continued in the local council results where they ended up down 14 seats
For Sinn Féin the Assembly and Local government elections in the north are our third in three months. In the South we fought a general election and emerged with a significantly enhanced Dail team of 14 TDs. In the Seanad election last month three republican Seanadoiri were elected.
And now the Assembly and local government elections have seen us make further gains. We have consolidated Sinn Féin’s vote across the north and there is clear space for continued growth. The party took 29 seats in the Assembly – up one – with an increased share of the vote and 138 seats in local councils – up 12 seats.
All these seats are important. But the wins in Fermanagh South Tyrone are particularly sweet. On the 30th anniversary of Bobby Sands death Sinn Féin took all three nationalist seats in the constituency he had represented briefly as an MP. I am sure many republicans remembering the hunger strike period took some satisfaction from this result. This blog certainly does.
All in all it was a good election for Sinn Féin. There are now 29 republicaan MLAs, 14 TDs, 3 Senators, in addition to our MPs and an MEP and hundreds of councillors across this island.
This week Sinn Féin is going back into the Assembly and into local councils in the north with a renewed and a larger mandate than ever before.
I want to thank all of our Assembly candidates and those who contested the local government elections. I want to also thank their families, and our election workers who made this success possible.
The only purpose for Sinn Féin in standing in any election is to win support for our republican objectives which include improving the quality of life of citizens, building peace and prosperity, creating jobs and defending public services and achieving Irish reunification.
There are massive challenges ahead north and south – in the economy; in confronting the EU/IMF bailout; in minimising the damage of the Tory cuts package; in plans to attack those on welfare - we will be about protecting our public services and those most vulnerable in this society.
But the first job of work to be done in the Assembly is to agree which party takes what department and who the Ministers will be. That process is already in train.