“The Ulster Unionists are finished” wrote one correspondent. “And the SDLP. The extremes won” replied another.
Ostensibly they did. I wrote in May 2016 that the goal of the centre parties had to be to reduce the combined DUP/SF vote to below half. In March, it was 56% and 61% of Assembly seats. In June, that was 65% and a complete wipe-out of the centre parties at Westminster. So clearly the Ulster Unionists and SDLP lost and the Alliance Party at best drew.
Certainly one reason Sinn Féin did so well in March was an anti-DUP vote. The exact reverse happened in June (which, by the way, was not a “Unionist surge” versus previous equivalent elections but rather specifically a DUP one). So yes, the DUP and Sinn Féin have won, in the sense that there is no sign of a swing back to their main communal rivals and has not been all century.
Yet all is not completely lost. First of all, it is worth remembering that the DUP and Sinn Féin are not the absolute extremes. Challenges from UKUP, TUV and other anti-compromise Unionists have been seen off completely by the DUP; challenges from the likes of Eirigi and dissident factions have also been seen off by Sinn Féin. People had harder line options but have rejected them decisively.
Moreover, the DUP and Sinn Féin are not what they were. Yes, there are Christian fundamentalists, creationists and outright homophobes in the DUP; yes, there are terrorist apologists who just think Prods should move to Scotland and crazed marxists in Sinn Féin’s ranks. However, they are no longer typical of either party, and decreasingly so. The DUP’s deal with the Conservatives was not one-sided and was politically cute, negotiated by serious players; likewise, Sinn Féin’s response to it has been relatively mature.
The DUP and Sinn Féin represent a type of politics I fundamentally oppose. However, it now falls to those like me to challenge them electorally. As we do so, all is far from lost – because at least the absolute extremes have been successfully marginalised.