THE DUP find themselves between Jim Allister and a resurgent UUP, according to HENRY PATTERSON.
ALTHOUGH the DUP has won a seat, its glory days of topping the poll and bringing in the Ulster Unionist candidate on its second preferences are gone. Why did the party do so badly? Certainly they had a less than inspiring candidate, whose performance on the BBC's Politics Show would not have won the party many votes.
There was also the issue of MPs' expenses – something not helped by Mr Robinson's petulant dismissal of his critics as those who would only be satisfied if politicians starved themselves and slept on park benches. But the DUP problem was more fundamental and long-standing.
The real damage was done before the campaign started. Despite dismissing Allister as a lone maverick the DUP tried to scare the unionist electorate into voting for it by claiming that this lone maverick could plunge Northern Ireland back into crisis.
Apart from its obvious inconsistency this was a dangerous argument, for it harked back to Sinn Fein claims throughout the peace process that if their demands were not acceded to there would be a crisis out of which, unfortunately of course, violence could return.
It was linked to the claim that if Sinn Fein topped the poll because the TUV had split the unionist vote, it would be a disaster for unionism. Why this was so was never explained.
Not splitting the vote has been an important consideration raised by the larger parties in Northern Ireland in previous elections. When the UUP was the dominant party it used it against the DUP and it was a quite effective tactic as long as the unionist electorate was convinced that the UUP was using its dominance to protect the Union.
After 1998 the DUP successfully argued that the UUP was undermining the Union and unionist interests by a string of concessions to republicans. However, the leadership of the DUP, once it had succeeded in displacing the UUP, went into government with the same individuals, the blood-thirsty terrorists that it had denounced when David Trimble shared government with them.
Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson's political advisors might have assured them that they could do the volte face because they faced no significant political force to their right. But this seriously underestimated the repulsion felt by a significant section of the DUP electorate with the "Chuckle Brothers" phenomenon. Although Dr Paisley was soon shunted into retirement and unionists were assured that a new harder style would be clear in their relation with Sinn Fein in government, the party still had to deal with the day-to-day evidence of a co-equal republican presence in government.
DUP victories over the Shinners on issues like the Irish Language Act, the terrorist shrine at the Maze might prove of little compensation whenever its voters tuned into lectures on equality of educational opportunity and the iniquities of grammar schools by Caitriona Ruane, who does not choose to live in or educate her daughter in the jurisdiction where she has reduced the transfer period to chaos.
Anger at the new dispensation from a significant sector of the unionist electorate has come as a surprise to many but this reflects in part the degree to which the local media, particularly BBC Northern Ireland, operate as extensions of the governing consensus. It happened when the unionists controlled Northern Ireland and it is still happening. The disdainful tones in which BBC presenters dealt with the UKIP victories in the rest of the UK are mirrored in the BBC political editor's dismissal of Allister voters as the "never never never element".
What are the implications of the result for future political developments? It has certainly reinvigorated the Ulster Unionist Party under its new brand name. However, it is Jim Allister who has emerged as the real victor of the election. His party seems set for a number of interventions in the next Westminster elections with potentially damaging effects on the DUP.
Martin McGuinness's measured response to the prospect of Sinn Fein topping the poll may have reflected republicans' worry that a DUP with Allister breathing down its neck will be an increasingly hard-line partner in government. Certainly it is distinctly possible that Sinn Fein will face the electorate within 12 months without the devolution of policing and justice to brandish before their supporters. Combined with the loss of their one MEP in the Republic and the decline of their vote share and the loss of councillors in the crucial Dublin area in the local government elections, the one jewel in their crown looks tarnished.
All in all, this election has shaken local politics to its foundations.
Professor Henry Patterson is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster.