THE Mid Ulster by-election campaign was short, dull and the victor predictable from the start but in years to come it may be looked back on as the catalyst for radically closer ties between the DUP and the Ulster Unionists.
Over the space of just a few months, politics in Northern Ireland has been moving towards large unionist and nationalist blocs as the Union Flag protests and a series of controversial joint SDLP-Sinn Fein moves convinced each side that the other was on the ascendancy.
Crucially, many unionists – particularly after the SDLP support for the naming of a play park after a terrorist – have come to believe that there are far less differences between the SDLP and Sinn Fein than they once imagined there to be.
And nationalists, viewing a series of pan-unionist initiatives where the UUP cooperates closer with the DUP than at any point since the leadership of Jim Molyneaux, increasingly appear to view the two main unionist parties as so close to one another as to be almost indistinguishable.
In four years reporting politics for the News Letter, the vast majority of political rows in the post-St Andrews Assembly have been intra-unionist and intra-nationalist; the most intense heat has been between the DUP, UUP and TUV.
But in recent months the centre of political gravity has shifted; while there are still frictions between factions within unionism and nationalism, the real heat is between the unionist and nationalist blocs.
The lofty rhetoric of the party conferences last autumn – where the major party leaders attempted to broaden their parties’ appeal – has been rudely unsettled by a months-long flags crisis which no one foresaw.
On the unionist side, the DUP and UUP have so rapidly become close that yesterday the man whose eagerness for unionist unity ultimately cost him his Ulster Unionist membership – David McNarry – warned against a ‘carve-up’ between the two big unionist parties.
The DUP and UUP agreement – subsequently supported by the TUV, UKIP and Willie Frazer – to stand aside in favour of Mr Lutton was described as an “experiment” by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt.
He has already claimed the experiment to be a success, and the result gives Mr Nesbitt a desperately-needed boost after months of torrid headlines — albeit the process has cost the UUP its brand as a distinct party which is fundamentally different to the DUP.
While Mr Lutton’s vote was down (partly because of a lower turnout) from that of the three unionist candidates in the last Mid Ulster Westminster election, the fact that he slightly increased the unionist percentage of the vote surprised the media and some of his supporters.
Given that Mr Lutton’s vote was at the upper end of his supporters’ expectations, they feel vindicated at both the decision to stand Mr Lutton and the conduct of his campaign, where he was largely absent from the media. In fact that strategy may have contributed to the fall in nationalist votes (nationalism was down 2 per cent, unionism up 1.7 per cent), with Sinn Fein supporters believing that he posed no threat.
The result shows the desire of voting unionists in rural constituencies west of the Bann for single unionist candidates and goes some way to reversing the damage done to the unionist unity project by the poor performance of Rodney Connor, who lost 1,625 unionist votes when he stood three years ago in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
Unlike that election, where the SDLP’s voters stampeded to Sinn Fein, this contest actually saw the SDLP vote increase. That is likely down to three factors: the party’s strong candidate, Patsy McGlone, who was up against a weak Sinn Fein rival; the widespread view that Mr Molloy would comfortably win so splitting the nationalist vote didn’t matter and possibly the ongoing row about abortion, which divides Mr McGlone and Mr Molloy.
In the east of Northern Ireland there is some desire among unionists for closer DUP-UUP links, but a significant pro-Union constituency exists which prizes choice and may not turn out to vote for a single pro-Union candidate.
However, the logic of unionists joining forces in an unwinnable Westminster by-election is that unionists will work together in every constituency across Northern Ireland.
That cannot involve non-party, almost non-political, candidates such as Mr Lutton across the board but will instead mean deals between Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt over who runs where.
If that happens, Sinn Fein will exert enormous pressure on the SDLP to put aside differences and join forces to tackle the unionist threat.
In previous years, the SDLP has resisted such advances and may do so again; but what seemed clear just months ago is now much less certain.