Election 2017: Ben Lowry says NI one of the few places to have avoided upheaval

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone  in the Oval Office of the White House, which very few pundits thought he would reach this time last year. Yanis Varoufakis says Mr Trump ticks a lot of things that are needed in a politician but he is still terrible because he then does the wrong thing in office (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Donald Trump speaks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House, which very few pundits thought he would reach this time last year. Yanis Varoufakis says Mr Trump ticks a lot of things that are needed in a politician but he is still terrible because he then does the wrong thing in office (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

This election is happening against a backdrop of almost unprecedented electoral turbulence in the western world.

Last year two things that pundits had thought highly unlikely happened on either side of the Atlantic – Brexit in the UK, and Donald Trump winning the presidential election in America.

Leave activists celebrate in Sunderland 
at news of the area's landside vote to back Brexit

Leave activists celebrate in Sunderland at news of the area's landside vote to back Brexit

In late 2013, Scotland came closer to voting for independence than anyone would have thought possible a few years before that referendum.

In France, Marine Le Pen of the hard right Front National is a serious contender for the presidency.

Meanwhile, countries as diverse as Greece, the Republic of Ireland, Australia and Italy have struggled to maintain governments, and for an extraordinary 18 months Belgium was unable to form one at all.

Austria last year came within a whisker of electing a far right leader.

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast offices

Ben Lowry, News Letter deputy editor, in the paper's Belfast offices

Even the UK, which in 2015 seemed to deliver a stable general election result, with the return of David Cameron to Downing Street at the helm of a surprise overall majority, in fact produced some spectacular results that year: the annihilation of Labour in Scotland, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats across Great Britain and the soaring of the Ukip-Green vote (17% of the vote, but only one seat each).

Since that result the Labour Party astonished seasoned political observers by voting for one of its most radical backbenchers as party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Then, after he was humiliated and isolated by his own MPs in a public display of their rejection of his leadership, Mr Corbyn comfortably won re-election in the autumn against a challenger, Owen Smith.

And yet last year Northern Ireland was one of the few places in the developed world to have confounded that trend of electoral upheaval.

Last year’s Assembly election surprised pundits by resulting in so little change. The DUP barely lost ground at all, when most pundits – including this one – thought that it would lose seats due to the anti-incumbency mood that was rocking governments around the world.

The front cover of the 12-page 2017 election pull-out that was free in Thursday's News Letter. The supplement of cartoon, analysis, full list of candidates and 18 constituency profiles was only available to paying readers of the print edition of the newspaper for more than 24 hours before being put online

The front cover of the 12-page 2017 election pull-out that was free in Thursday's News Letter. The supplement of cartoon, analysis, full list of candidates and 18 constituency profiles was only available to paying readers of the print edition of the newspaper for more than 24 hours before being put online

Sinn Fein also held up well, but did get a jolt from the success of People Before Profit, which won two seats and even topped the poll in the republican heartland of West Belfast.

A closer scrutiny of the 2016 Assembly results shows that Northern Ireland did in fact to some degree follow the trends that have been seen elsewhere of a rise in anti-establishment parties.

The centre ground improved its position on 2011 – the combined Alliance and Green edged up from 8.6% in to 9.7% over those five years.

And a flurry of independent candidates or smaller parties increased their share of the vote by almost 6% in 2016, compared to 2011.

This meant that the four big tribal parties – the DUP, Sinn Fein, the UUP and the SDLP saw their share of the vote decline by the not inconsiderable total of almost 7%.

This, however, did not translate into seats because it was hard for most of those minor candidates to come anywhere near a quota needed for getting elected.

It will be harder still this time, now that there are five seats in each constituency, which means that a candidate has to get almost 17% of the vote to become an MLA.

In 2016 numerous smaller candidates got healthy votes but still failed to win election, such as Henry Reilly for Ukip in South Down (2,718 votes) and Brian Wilson, the independent in North Down (1,415 votes).

In summary, while last year’s election result seemed on the surface to bring about little change, because the change in seat composition was minimal, there was a notable move away from the big parties.

There is, nonetheless, a clear reluctance among Northern Ireland voters to vote for any upheaval, which is not doubt due to continuing and widespread anxiety about the constitutional position on both sides of the tribal divide.

On occasion over the years though, there have been electoral surprises. A notable example was the electorate of East Belfast unseating Peter Robinson in the 2010 Westminster election, just months after the so-called Irisgate scandal emerged involving his wife.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor