Sir Jeffrey Donaldson never uttered the word ‘crocodile’, but the DUP’s determination to arrest a Sinn Fein premier backfired dramatically and galvanized the nationalist vote.
From every counting center came fantastic news for Sinn Fein. It blew away its rivals, with the SDLP and People Before Profit down sharply.
The DUP’s vehement opposition to the prospect of Michelle O’Neill becoming prime minister has won a place in the hearts of nationalist voters and spurred them to make it happen.
And so votes that might not have been in Sinn Fein’s direction were lent to the party to send a message to the DUP.
The symbolism of the party taking first place – if a new executive is formed – in a state it wants to abolish is enormous.
No constituency tells the story better than West Belfast. Sinn Fein will comfortably bring its four MPs home.
SDLP’s Paul Doherty was a strong candidate who is firmly rooted in Turf Lodge and founded a food bank. Still, the party’s vote fell from 9% to 6% in the constituency.
In 2016, Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit led the poll with 22%. He was at 8% today and will probably take the last seat.
The PBP once looked like a serious rival to Sinn Fein in working-class nationalist quarters, but its star has fallen. With the cost of living crisis, he seemed well placed to take a seat at Foyle, but he didn’t even come close.
Sinn Fein may have missed a round at South Down, where they polled 44%. Had he fielded another candidate, he might have won three seats. The SDLP has fallen from 25% to 16% in the constituency and is certain to lose a seat.
Sinead Ennis, who was recently embroiled in controversy when historic tweets were revealed, topped the poll with 14,381 votes – a number closer to an election victory in Westminster than an Assembly.
In East Derry, Cara Hunter of the SDLP, whom no one believed to be in trouble, is likely to be battling for the last seat with Sinn Fein’s second candidate.
Hunter’s political situation shows how badly the party is dealing with it. The most symbolic defeat would be that of Nichola Mallon in North Belfast, who could lose his seat to the Alliance’s Nuala McAllister.
Mallon paid the price for focusing more on his Stormont ministry at the expense of maintaining high visibility on the pitch.
She tried to make up for lost time during the election campaign, but it may have been too late.
Paul McCusker, Ardoyne’s top councilor in the polls, didn’t seem to be with her as much as one would expect – it certainly cost him votes.
If the deputy leader of the SDLP falls, it raises all sorts of questions for the party. Who will replace her in the Assembly? Sinead McLaughlin is also under pressure in Foyle, leaving the possibility that there will be no female MP.
With Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna in Westminster, the SDLP would be sorely short of strong, articulate voices in Stormont.
He won big in South Belfast in the 2019 general election, but that result must raise internal concerns about retaining that seat.
Conor Houston at Strangford was the party’s best hope for victory, but it didn’t happen. The SDLP did nothing wrong in a vigorously campaigned campaign, and Eastwood won both TV executives’ debates.
But the party simply could not compete with the heartstrings of Nationalist voters that a Nationalist in Stormont’s top job meant.
The DUP is about to lose the post of Prime Minister. The party has been hit hard by the TUV, although it remains to be seen how many seats it will lose.
For Ulster Unionists it was not a great day. Doug Beattie’s liberal and inclusive unionism should appeal best in urban areas, but his two hopefuls in Belfast – Stephen McCarthy in the south of the city and Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston – were uncompetitive.
In both constituencies the party vote fell – significantly in South Belfast. Major questions will now likely be asked of Beattie internally about party strategy.
The UUP failed to win back moderate Unionist Alliance voters. If its liberal unionism does not please Belfast then it will be difficult everywhere.
TUV performed remarkably well but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see if Jim Allister is back with any company.
Alliance continues its remarkable rise under the leadership of Naomi Long. It is now firmly established as Northern Ireland’s third party and has monopolized the middle ground with the Greens voting on the slide.
It was a good day for Long, but first and foremost it was Michelle O’Neill’s election. She will surely raise her glass to Sir Jeffrey for helping her throw Sinn Fein Stormont’s biggest party ever.